Efforts to bury murdered woman turn into racial dispute in Waller County

The unidentified woman was found on a Waller County road, her dark hair shorn off, a plastic bag taped around her head, her hands severed. She had been strangled and tossed away by her killer.

More than a year later, the crime remains unsolved, the murder victim's name is still unknown and efforts to bury the unidentified woman have churned controversy in Waller County - a rural area just west of Houston that has long been roiled by racial divisions.

The victim is white. The funeral home and the cemetery a justice of the peace initially chose to handle her burial are historically black.

Waller County Commissioners Court balked at paying for that burial. And when activists started raising questions about the county's hesitation at burying the woman in a black cemetery, the commissioners asked a white-owned funeral home to handle arrangements - adhering to what community activists say is a long-standing tradition of cemetery segregation in the county.

"I'm just appalled right now. I can't believe this county stooped that low," said Walter Pendleton, a local black minister who filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Hempstead that forced it to integrate its public cemeteries. "The county overstepped its boundary to get a white funeral home to pick up the body so that it could not be buried in a black cemetery."

Had the unidentified woman been buried in a black cemetery, she would have been the first known white person buried in a black cemetery in the county.

Instead, since March 25, Waller County has paid neighboring Harris County $50 a day to store the body.

"It's clear that when there is a white body and no family members or anyone to claim it, that the authorities will call ... a white funeral home for a white body," said DeWayne Charleston, the Waller County justice of the peace who first ordered a black funeral home to handle the arrangements for the unidentified victim.

He added: "I have never seen such defiance and determination to protect a segregated system."

Waller County Judge Owen Ralston, the county's top elected official, denied that racial issues were at play.

"I didn't know if the victim was black or white, and I didn't care," said Ralston.

Rather, he attributed the delay in burial to the black funeral home director's insistence that the county sign a letter guaranteeing payment. Ralston said that went against county policy, and instead contacted another funeral home to handle the arrangements.

Charleston is black, Ralston is white.

The white-owned funeral picked up the woman's body Monday - the same day community activists sent out a news release calling attention to the situation.

That a nameless murder victim's burial is stirring claims of racial discrimination is not surprising in Waller County. In 2006, the Texas Attorney General investigated claims that the rights of black voters were violated. Earlier this year, students at historically black Prairie View A&M University protested to bring attention to racially motivated voting problems in Waller County.

"The issue of racism always raises its head here - from voting rights to education, to the criminal justice system," Charleston said. "Waller County is stuck in the 19th century."

The woman's nude and mutilated body was found on a roadway just before dawn on March 18, 2007. She is believed to be between 30 and 50 years old, and was likely killed at another location, then dumped on the roadside, police say.

Charleston said he was moved by the woman's death and suggested the burial as a sign of respect, saying "I'm treating her as though she is a kin of mine."

He also said he didn't expect the reaction he got from the county government.

"It was gruesome and that no one identified her or claimed her, makes it more horrific," said Charleston. "I thought that this woman, if nothing else, was going to have the distinction of integrating Waller County cemeteries."

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