The Wild, Wild East: Update on the East End Cemetery Gunslingers of December 13, 2014 / by Erin Hollaway Palmer + Brian Palmer

 Frame grab from video of hunters at Evergreen Cemetery, December 13, 2014. The child's face has been erased using Photoshop.

Frame grab from video of hunters at Evergreen Cemetery, December 13, 2014. The child's face has been erased using Photoshop.

It took another round of telephoning, but I finally received a call back from Henrico Police Division. I spoke to a sergeant, the supervisor of the two officers who responded to the pre-Christmas call about a party of armed men hunting at Richmond’s East End and Evergreen Cemeteries, historic African American burial grounds. Boy Scouts from two troops had just arrived at East End to take part in a cemetery cleanup and were greeted with intermittent shotgun blasts.

The sergeant, relying on the officers’ account, told me that the hunters said they had permission to hunt in “the cemetery.” That’s what the hunters told me and the group of volunteers gathered to clean up graves that Saturday. That answer seemed incomplete because the men were roaming two cemeteries, East End and Evergreen, not just one. The boundaries between the cemeteries are fuzzy, as are those between Henrico County and the city of Richmond. East End, while mostly in Henrico, spills into Richmond.

Evergreen is, in fact, privately owned, according to Richmond city records, by a company called U.K. Corporation. It is feasible that U.K. granted permission to the hunters. But such an OK would cover only Evergreen, not East End. I telephoned U.K. and left a message with the contact person, Isaiah Entzminger, Jr., requesting a call back. I will ask him if he granted the men permission to hunt at Evergreen, if so why, and if he plans to grant such permission in the future.

I had heard from East End Cemetery volunteers and read on the Web that East End was “abandoned” or “nearly abandoned.” I assumed that this meant East End had no owners. But when you assume, you make an A-S-S . . . (which I tell my journalism students all the time). Just because the cemetery isn’t adequately maintained doesn’t mean it has no owners, I learned. Henrico County’s Real Estate Assessment Division lists East End Burial Association as the current owner. I phoned and left a message with someone at the home of the burial association contact person, Dr. Earl Gray. I plan to ask him the same questions I will ask Mr. Entzminger.

The sergeant told me that he had contacted Virginia’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries the day of our encounter. “If it’s a privately owned cemetery, as it is, and the owner of that property, albeit a cemetery or not, grants permission to anyone they desire to hunt on that land, and it’s in that zoned area, it’s not illegal to hunt there. There were no in violations on that day,” the sergeant said. Regulations on DGIF’s website support this—for Henrico County.

So on paper, hunting in the parts of East End in Henrico appears legal. We're still not sure where the orange-hatted ones were shooting, though. The sergeant promised to have his officers follow up with me, and one has (he left a message; I'll call him back next week).

The City of Richmond, however, is another matter, according to the DGIF: “No discharge of firearms except on approved ranges.” So permission from a landowner or no, if the men were firing weapons on Richmond soil, they were, it appears, breaking the law.

Vivian Coleman, who chaperoned the Boy Scouts on December 13, and worked side by side clearing vines with her grandson, told me her father-in-law is buried at Evergreen. “It could have been any day that my husband could have pulled up with my grandchild” to visit his father’s grave, she said.

These particular details matter. But there are bigger issues hovering above mere permissions. Fundamentally, can you really legally shoot live ammo at mammals in cemeteries that, though privately owned, are visited by relatives of people buried there, historians, birdwatchers, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, students, and other cemetery cleaner-uppers? That seems absolutely nuts to me.

The sergeant asked me a key question, however, for which I did not have an immediate answer: Under what authority do the cemetery cleaners do their work at East End? Who gave them permission? I am waiting for a response from either Dr. Gray or the head of Virginia Roots, the organization that runs the cleanup days.

I want to get to the very bottom of this. I want to hear from relevant Richmond, Henrico, and Commonwealth of Virginia authorities if cemetery visitors will continue to encounter hunting parties on hallowed ground. —BP