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Fact Check: Hinds County Pauper’s Field Not A ‘Secret’ Graveyard

Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba speaks to an audience
Jackson, Miss., Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba spoke at a community meeting at Faith Worship and Outreach Church on Jan. 23, 2024, criticizing what he called misleading narratives about “secret graves” that spread on social media about the pauper’s graveyard behind the Hinds County Penal Farm in Raymond, Miss. Photo by Shaunicy Muhammad

JACKSON, Miss.—Rampant misinformation about the Hinds County pauper’s graveyard on social media is “harmful,” Jackson Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba warned at a community meeting on Tuesday. Sensational rumors spread through social media and even in news reports about hundreds of bodies buried in Hinds County following NBC News’ accurate reports on three cases in which officials failed to notify family members about loved ones buried in unmarked graves.

“They created this narrative. They called it a ‘secret grave’ that’s supposedly behind, apparently, the ‘secret jail in Jackson,” the mayor told an audience of Jackson residents gathered at Faith Worship and Outreach Church on Medgar Evers Boulevard.

“A pauper’s field isn’t only found in Hinds County; it’s in every county in the United States of America,” he said. “It’s important that we own our narrative and don’t allow anybody to create a narrative for us.”

The Hinds County pauper’s cemetery is located behind the Hinds County Penal Farm in Raymond, Miss., just outside Jackson. It has been the focus of much conversation and outrage in recent months since October 2023, when NBC News reporter Jon Schuppe first began releasing a series of reports about three different men—Dexter Wade, Marrio Moore and Jonathan David Hankins—whom Hinds County officials buried at the cemetery over the past two years without notifying the men’s families of their deaths.

Each man died under different circumstances, NBC News reported. An off-duty Jackson police officer driving an SUV along Interstate 55 struck and killed Wade on March 5, 2023, as he attempted to walk across the highway. Jackson police found Moore after unknown assailants had beaten him to death, wrapped him in a tarp and left him lying on Gunda Street on Feb. 2, 2023. Moore’s family found out about his death from a WLBT report on Oct. 9, 2023 that detailed homicides JPD had previously not reported to the public.

JPD and investigators with the Hinds County coroner’s office found Hankins at a hotel in Jackson on May 23, 2022, after he died of an apparent drug overdose.

On Dec. 18, 2023, NBC News released their report on the 215 “unclaimed people buried in a pauper’s field in Hinds County.” Social-media users on X, Tik Tok and YouTube began to conflate the documented 215 unclaimed but identified bodies with what happened to Wade, Moore and Hankins, blurring the lines of fact and speculation.

The posts and videos were liked, shared and reposted thousands of times, causing a furor online among long-time Mississippi residents and reporters like WLBT’s C.J. LeMaster, who used their own social-media accounts in attempts to clear up the misconceptions.

“It’s entirely inaccurate and harmful to the vision of what people think of the city of Jackson. It is harmful to the families that are affected, and it’s just inaccurate,” the mayor said at a community meeting on Jan. 23.

Three mothers hold up large poster photos of their sons at a press conference
Dexter Wade, Marrio Moore and Jonathan David Hankins are the three men NBC News has identified as buried at the Hinds County Penal Farm in Raymond, Miss., before their families were notified of their deaths. Their mothers, Gretchen Hankins, Mary Moore Glenn and Bettersten Wade (left to right) are pictured holding photos of their sons at a press conference at Stronger Hope Baptist Church in Jackson, Miss., on Dec. 20, 2023. Photo by Shaunicy Muhammad

Family members for each of the three men told NBC News that Hinds County officials approved their loved ones for burial at the county cemetery without ever contacting them to give them the chance to claim their bodies. Dexter Wade’s mother, Bettersten, questioned how officials could make the mixup since she had already been in a lawsuit with the City of Jackson over the death of her brother George Robinson.

“How could you not say this is a vendetta? I put in a missing person’s report. There’s my address; there’s my phone number. How could they not put all that together?” she said at a press conference on Oct. 30, 2023.

Mayor Lumumba spoke about Wade’s case specifically at his State of the City address on Oct. 27, 2023, and said his office’s review did not find “any police misconduct in this process or that there was any malicious intent”; he instead attributed the failures to “a lack of communication with the missing person’s division, the coroner’s office and accident investigation.”

City officials still have yet to name the off-duty police officer who struck and killed Wade last March. The coroner’s office labeled the death an accident, NBC News reported on Oct. 25.

Since NBC News first reported on the circumstances surrounding Wade’s death and burial, famed civil-rights attorney Ben Crump, who’s representing the mothers of the three men, has called for the U.S. Department of Justice to open an investigation into how the men ended up buried at the county cemetery without their families knowing.

‘I Didn’t Want This Kind Of Closure’

Pauper’s graveyards have long served as burial sites for those whose loved ones simply couldn’t afford burial expenses. However, “(pauper’s) burials also become necessary when government staff cannot trace the deceased’s family,” a 2015 report in the Vancouver Sun explained. County officials sometimes also bury deceased people in pauper’s graves when that person’s next-of-kin has no interest in claiming their loved one’s body.

In 2020, Georgetown, Ky., authorities buried 71-year-old Nancy Shannon in the Scott County pauper’s field after tracking down her brother who did not want the responsibility of claiming and burying her, Mike Scogin reported. She had died from smoke inhalation during a house fire.

There are other documented cases around the country where county officials have mistakenly buried people whose loved ones had no idea they were dead.

Sylvia Nolan last saw her son, LeRyan Nicholson, alive in April of 1998. He was a promising student-athlete in Nashville, Tenn., but began showing signs of mental illness and stopped attending school in his late teens. Unbeknownst to his mother, unknown assailants murdered her son on April 13, 1998, burned his body beyond recognition and left him wrapped in carpet on a dead-end street.

When police failed to identify his next of kin to notify her of his death, Nicholson was buried as a ‘John Doe’ later that same month in a pauper’s grave. Nolan’s search for her son lasted for 15 years before police positively identified him and finally told her the truth of what happened to him.

“I’ve been looking for him and I don’t know. Honest to God, I didn’t know. I just prayed. One night I just prayed, it was his birthday … last year. And I said, ‘Lord give me closure because I’m so tired of pain,’ ” Nolan told The Tennessean after police identified her son’s body in 2013. “But I didn’t want this kind of closure.”

More recently, in 2018, a Canton, Ohio, man discovered his father had been buried in a pauper’s grave. He had searched for him for over a year.

JPD Creates New System For Notifying Next-of-Kin

After NBC News reported on the deaths and subsequent burials of Dexter Wade, Marrio Moore and Jonathan Hankins at the Hinds County pauper’s graveyard, city and county officials both said that the other was responsible for notifying the men’s next-of-kin.

On Nov. 13, 2023, Jackson Police Chief Joseph Wade announced that for the first time, the department had created its own death-notification policy. “You would think that we’d have a death-notification policy, but we do not. But we will as of today,” Wade said.

Jackson Police Assistant Chief Joseph Wade speaking during a hearing
Jackson Police Chief Joseph Wade announced the department’s first death-notification policy at a press conference in Jackson, Miss., on Nov. 13, 2023. “You would think we’d have a death-notification policy but we do not. But we will as of today,” Wade said. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

NBC News reported on Jan. 17, 2024, that the Hinds County Coroner’s Office provided documentation outlining their death-notification policy in response to a public-records request.

Mississippi law says that county authorities where a deceased person is located “shall make reasonable efforts to notify members of the decedent’s family or other known interested persons, and, if the dead body or portion thereof shall not be claimed for burial or cremation by any interested person within five (5) days of the aforementioned written notice, the board of supervisors or coroner shall, as soon as it may think appropriate, authorize and direct the burial or cremation and burial of the residue of such dead body or portion thereof.”

Attorney Ben Crump said at a Dec. 20, 2023, press conference with the mothers of Wade, Moore and Hankins that he was in contact with two additional families that are awaiting DNA test results to find out if their missing loved ones were also mistakenly buried at the pauper’s gravesite.

“It’s more likely than not that their loved ones are there, but we want it verified,” Crump said. “Once we get that verification, they (may) join this fraternity that no family wants to be a part of.”

Of the over 600 people buried at the Hinds County Penal Farm, only Wade, Moore and Hankins have been named so far as individuals who were buried without their families’ knowing. Read the names of the other named but unclaimed people at the Hinds County Penal Farm on WLBT’s website here.


Correction: This story originally said NBC News first reported on Moore’s death. In fact, WLBT first reported on Moore’s death and how his family first learned of his death. We apologize for the error.

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