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Belated American Indian funeral to bring family closure

Delma Elizabeth Hardy

Traditional American Indian funeral services Sunday will open the way for Delma Elizabeth Hardy - after more than 12 years - to join her ancestors in the family burial grounds near Ponemah.

Steven Ellison, an attorney with the Minneapolis firm of Faegre and Benson, helped bring Hardy's remains home this week from a pauper's grave in Cook County, Ill. Hardy's mother, Willamette Morrison, has named Ellison honorary pallbearer. She also authorized him to tell the story of her daughter's recovery.

A day before her 24th birthday, Hardy was murdered Aug. 7, 1996, outside Chicago, Ill., Ellison said. But the family was never notified of Hardy's death.

"She was not a Jane Doe," Ellison said. "She was found with a Minnesota driver's license on her. Some kind of contact should have been done."

He said Morrison tried to have Cook County mount a missing person investigation but was told that was not possible because Hardy was an adult.

In November 1996, Hardy was buried in a pauper's grave in Homewood Memorial Gardens in Homewood, Ill. Ellison said Cook County, Ill., has a contract with the cemetery to bury indigents.

Since Morrison discovered her daughter's death and burial place in 2002, she has worked to bring Hardy's remains home to be buried with her ancestors.

Ellison said Morrison made contact with someone at Homewood Memorial Gardens in 2006. Red Lake Tribal Court named her Hardy's official next of kin so she could retrieve the body for a traditional burial. Cemetery officials told Morrison the cost of disinterment would be between $3,500 and $4,500. He said Morrison raised the funds to pay for the disinterment, but the cemetery returned the checks and refused to disinter. Homewood then asked for a court order for disinterment.

"Her mom was just very, very extremely tenacious - she wouldn't take no for an answer," said Kevin Cease, funeral director at Cease Family Funeral Home of Bemidji.

The funeral home is assisting the family with arrangements.

Ellison said he became involved in the case in December 2007. He said his firm makes a practice of taking pro bono (no fee) cases, especially for Indians. He also has a license to practice law in Illinois, as well as Minnesota.

When Ellison was informed of Morrison's quest, he said, "I felt the call came to me for a reason. This has been the most difficult case I have undertaken. Never have I had an impact on a person's afterlife."

However, he said he also expected the issue to take about a week to resolve.

Not so. The year since he took on the case resulted in months of unsuccessful efforts to contact the cemetery owner, frustrating and lengthy correspondence with the owner's attorney, numerous court hearings and a complaint served by the Cook County Sheriff's Office. All failed to have Hardy returned to her family. Finally, a judge's orders resulted in disinterment, absolute identification of Hardy and delivery of the body Monday to Blake-Lamb Funeral Home in Oak Lawn, Ill.

"I can't help but think how unnecessary this has been," Ellison said. "I failed to see what possible interest the cemetery would have to fight it. I think they thought (Morrison) would simply go away."

Hardy's body was flown on Christmas Eve to Fargo, N.D. Cease met the plane, and Morrison was able to have some private time with her daughter on Christmas Day. The wake began Friday afternoon at Ponemah Community Center.

"He wanted to get her home for Christmas," Cease said of Ellison's yearlong struggle on behalf of Hardy's family.

Ellison said there are questions he couldn't answer unless Morrison wanted to sue Homewood and Cook County and launch an investigation. She doesn't want to sue, he said. Consequently, much will remain a mystery - including why the family wasn't notified of Hardy's death, even though she was named in the prosecution of her murderer.

As for Hardy's murder, Ellison said she was shot in the chest by Louis Cluchey, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for first-degree murder and paroled in May 2006.

"He is in Illinois and scheduled to be discharged from parole in May or June," Ellison said. "But not if I can help it."

Victims' families can submit statements to oppose a convict's discharge from parole, and Ellison intends to pursue that course.