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13 Investigates: Finding ‘Big Momma’

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verlilla stansbery

FREEPORT (WREX) -- What do you do if you follow the rules, but the rules don't add up?

"I had to go by the rules of the law," said George Tripplett while standing in the Freeport City Cemetery. "The law is not being the law, the law is not upholding the law."

Each headstone in the Freeport City Cemetery has a person underneath, a story of a life once lived, a story that will always be remembered. It's no different for Tripplett.

"If you look on the headstone it says "Big Momma," Verlilla Stansbery, "Big Momma," he said standing over a headstone that said his grandmother's name.

Also on that headstone, the date Big Momma died, February 27, 1986. She was buried four days later, according to the funeral pamphlet.

"She was the one that told me you could be anything you want to be," Tripplett added.

But, her headstone does not dot the grass at the Freeport City Cemetery, because the city says she isn't buried there.

"You can't hide a body, that's what I'm saying," Tripplet said pointing to the camera. "Somebody knows where that body is."

He and his family attended the funeral in 1986, though he doesn't remember exactly where the burial was.

"Don't tell me you can't find her when you had a hearse, you had family, you had everything, it is a lie," he said. "You can't explain it."

But, the city says just that, after multiple interview requests to multiple city leaders, the city sent a statement, it reads:

"The City has no record of the internment of Verlilla Stansbery in the City Cemetery in 1986.  An exhaustive and extensive search conducted several years ago incorporated over 100 years of cemetery records and involved numerous former and current City employees and yielded no record of Verlilla Stansbery at the City Cemetery. A search of all financial records produced no indication of payment for a burial plot, and the family has not provided a cemetery deed nor burial order showing otherwise.  All City records have been made available to the family for inspection. Although the City certainly sympathizes with the family of Verlilla Stansbery, the City has been unable to find any documentation or physical proof that that a burial site exists for her in City Cemetery."

Statement from City of Freeport

The death certificate, funeral pamphlet and obituary all say Stansbery is buried in the city-owned cemetery. So, who missed the mark?

Verlilla Stansbery's death certificate

"It would be the cemetery's responsibility to keep track of the burials and where they're done," said Bob Smith, President of the Illinois Funeral Director's Association.

Stansbery's family did not have a lot of money at the time of her death, so they couldn't afford a headstone at the time. It wasn't until just a few years ago that Tripplett decided to buy her one.

"If I would have been tight and wanted to save my money, I would have never found out that she's not there," Tripplett said.

Now, he may never find out where she is, or what actually happened to her. Tripplett can file a complaint with the State of Illinois at either the Comptroller's Office or the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, but Smith says that may lead to another dead end.

"The Comptroller's Office would probably go to the cemetery and say, 'show us your records,' and the cemetery would say, 'we don't have them.'"

The Freeport City Cemetery does not and has not had any public complaints made against it, the Illinois IDFPR tells 13 WREX it does not discuss pending complaints or investigations.

The Burke-Tubbs Funeral Home in Freeport was the funeral home that performed the funeral for Stansbery in 1986. Burke-Tubbs did tell 13 WREX it has record of her funeral and a document called a statement of goods and services. That document does not say where she is buried, only that a funeral did happen.

Tripplett just wants to find where she's buried and make sure it doesn't happen to anyone else.

"Just because it's the law doesn't make it the law being followed," He said. "This is a great example and I won't let it go."

Note: Stansbery's headstone is spelled as "Stansberry." After talking with her family, and looking at her death certificate, 13 WREX chose to use the name with one r because that is the name on the legal document.

James Stratton

James Stratton is the Evening Anchor at 13 WREX and reports for 13 Investigates He joined the team in August, 2018 after working at KWQC TV-6 in Davenport Iowa. His work in Illinois and Iowa has been awarded in both states, along with Edward R. Murrow and Emmy Awards at 13 WREX.

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