The Maine State Police Major Crimes Unit responds to a scene Tuesday afternoon at a trailer at 239 Harrison Road in Norway where a woman’s body was found buried in the backyard. Jon Bolduc/Sun Journal

NORWAY — Vernelle Jackson, 83, said she buried her best friend in her backyard at 239 Harrison Road a year and a half ago, and that she has no regrets.

For the South Carolina native, it was an expression of love and respect to her longtime friend, whose dying wish was to be laid to rest near her friend and caregiver. The two met and became friends years ago when they both lived in the South, Jackson said in a telephone interview with the Portland Press Herald on Wednesday night.

Her decision to bury her friend, who has not yet been identified by authorities, was made after she became seriously ill and bedridden. Jackson said her friend, who was born in 1937, was under the care of a doctor as well as hospice care in the months before she died.

Jackson said her friend did not have insurance, and Jackson promised her that she would bury her in the yard.

“She told me, ‘I want you to promise me and don’t let me down. I want to be buried in your backyard so I can be close to you,’” Jackson told WMTW in an interview that aired Wednesday evening.

“If I go to jail for it, I just have to go,” Jackson said.

In the interview with WMTW, Jackson said she wrapped her in a tarp, and dragged her to the hole she had dug. Jackson, who has been diagnosed with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), said it took her a couple of days to dig the grave and move her friend’s body due to her physical condition.

State police came to her home Tuesday at 239 Harrison Road in Norway for a well-being check on the woman, according to Jackson.

Jackson, a former nurse’s aide, said she has fully cooperated with state police, who informed her that she needed a permit to bury a person. Jackson said she told police that her friend died from natural causes.

Maine State Police detectives and evidence technicians located the woman’s remains during a search of the property Tuesday. The woman had been buried in a shallow grave behind the mobile home, near the home’s well.

Investigators said the woman likely died in the past 12 to 18 months. The Medical Examiner’s Office will try to give investigators a positive identification on the remains, along with a cause of death. McCausland said an autopsy on the remains of the woman’s body started Wednesday.

“We are looking for answers from the Medical Examiner’s Office,” McCausland said when asked Wednesday about potential criminal charges being brought against Jackson. “We’re anticipating that could take a while.”

‘A GOOD TIME TOGETHER’

The women’s friendship goes back years to when they met in church while living in the South. Jackson describes herself as a farm girl, who picked cotton and sweet potatoes and baled hay on a farm in South Carolina.

When Jackson came to Maine 20 years ago looking for a place to live, it was her deceased friend who invited her to stay at her Otisfield home. It was a debt that Jackson tried to repay when her friend, who had no other place to live, moved into her Norway home four years ago.

Jackson said her friend had struggled with alcoholism during her life.

“I told her that if she wanted to live with me, she couldn’t drink. I told her I’m a church-going person and I don’t drink,” Jackson recalled. “She never had another drink after she moved in.”

They tried to make the most of their time together. They took road trips to Old Orchard Beach and visited lakes in the Bridgton area. They went fishing and actually caught fish at Pennesseewassee Lake in Norway.

At home, Jackson said her friend enjoyed her Southern-style cooking, especially her fish and grits.

“We just had a good time together,” Jackson said.

When she died, Jackson said she dug a hole in her backyard and buried her friend. She did not realize that she needed a permit to bury her.

“I stand behind what I did. If I had known I needed a permit, I would have got a permit,” Jackson said.

Jackson owns the home on Harrison Road, which she and her husband purchased. Her husband, Charlie, died eight years ago.

The Norway case is not the first time that police have been called upon to investigate a home burial. In 2016, a Baldwin man admitted to burying his mother in the backyard of a home they shared. Maine State Police investigated why Shawn Farnell, 43, buried his mother, 72-year-old Carolyn Farnell, under about 3 feet of dirt in a construction pit behind their home.

Police were alerted to the presence of a body there when a tipster called the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office. Multiple family members told police that Farnell was in failing health but did not want to go to the hospital.

While no foul play was suspected, Shawn Farnell did not have a death certificate for his mother or a permit to bury her.

While burial at home or on private land is legal in Maine, the state requires people to first notify their municipality or county so the burial plot can be added to land records. After the family burial plot is formalized on paper, the owner must mark it as a cemetery.

In addition, a person is required to obtain a signed death certificate from a doctor. That allows for the certificate to be maintained as a vital record by the city or town where the person died.

According to the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Maine website, people can be buried on private property in Maine if a portion of the property is designated as a “family burying ground.” It was not clear Wednesday whether Jackson’s property was designated as such.


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