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Thursday, April 29, 2004 01:10 pm

Tombstone blues

Andrew Richards’ leg was broken when he “wriggled” a tombstone at Oak Ridge Cemetery

The city of Springfield calls it a freak accident, but the family of 8-year-old Andrew Richards says the several hundred-pound tombstone that broke the boy's leg was an accident waiting to happen.

On the morning of April 12, Lillie Riney took Andrew and two of her other grandkids to Oak Ridge Cemetery to stroll through some of its 19th-century gravesites. She was still getting out of the car when Andrew and his 6-year-old sister, Anastasia, ran ahead, trekking up a hill and out of view.

Suddenly, remembers Riney, "I heard this awful screaming: 'Grandma! Grandma!' And there was my poor little boy lying under the tombstone."

Riney managed to pry the lad out from under the limestone slab and rushed him to St. John's Hospital, where he was kept overnight and fitted for a full-length plaster cast.

Andrew, thin-limbed and redheaded, has since been laid up on the couch of his family's home on South MacArthur Boulevard.

"I like not being in school," he says, flashing a gap-toothed grin. "But I'd rather be playing outside."

Andrew has admitted to "wriggling" the stone, but his mother, Jody Richards, says that's no excuse for what happened.

"My 6-year-old daughter could have tipped it over, it was so loose," she says.

The Richards family filed a complaint seeking compensation from the cemetery, which operates under the city's Department of Public Works.

But in a letter dated April 19, assistant corporation counsel James Lang claimed the city was not liable as Andrew "was rocking the tombstone when it fell over on him."

Andrew's parents have consulted with attorneys, but none have been willing to take the case.

"We're not looking for millions," Jody says. "We just want to be paid what our insurance doesn't cover."

LuAnn Johnson, the cemetery's executive director, says there's no precedent at Oak Ridge for what happened to Andrew.

"To my knowledge, it's the first time," says Johnson, who is Mayor Tim Davlin's first cousin.

The city has since propped the stone back up, leading the Richards family to predict there will be similar incidents in the future at Illinois' largest cemetery.

While that remains to be seen, one thing is certain. Grandma Riney, an amateur genealogist who enjoys exploring old graveyards, vows to find new ways to entertain her grandkids.

"For now on I'm going to do my cemetery hunting on my own."

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