- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 3, 2008

HOUSTON (AP) | More than a year ago, a woman’s body was found on a 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.

Today, the crime remains unsolved, the victim’s name is still not known and efforts to bury her have set off controversy in Waller County - a rural area just west of Houston that is long roiled by racial divisions.

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

But Waller County Commissioners Court balked at paying for that burial. 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 in Waller to handle arrangements.

That outraged Walter Pendleton, a local black minister who filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Hempstead that forced it to integrate its public cemeteries.

“I’m just appalled right now. I can’t believe this county stooped that low,” he said. “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.”

The victim would be the first known white person buried in a black cemetery in Waller County.

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

“I have never seen such defiance and determination to protect a segregated system,” said DeWayne Charleston, the Waller County justice of the peace who first ordered the black funeral home to handle the arrangements.

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,” he said.

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

The white-owned funeral home picked up the woman’s body on 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,” Judge Charleston said. “Waller County is stuck in the 19th century.”

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