Fluke season had just begun, and Bruce Dillin of Bayonne was scouting the Hackensack River across from Laurel Hill Park in Secaucus for a spot to trap killie fish he could use as bait. “I remember it being a hot sunny day,” he said. “I was in my kayak, and looked at a stream near old Route 7. There was a little island in the middle of an inland pond. I climbed up, tied up my kayak, and crunched through some 8-foot high reeds. Suddenly, I found myself standing on a gravestone that was laying flat. Then I saw the date. It was from 1935.” The name Theodore Zetterlund was inscribed on the stone, along with the date of Dec. 7, 1935. The find fascinated Dillin. He didn’t want to move on. He took a picture of the grave before he left. But he kept thinking about it, and he needed to find out more. So he started to dig for information. Dillin found information saying that Zetterlund had been buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in North Arlington, not in the Meadowlands. “Then I thought, here is a man with two graves,” he said. When he went to visit the graveyard in North Arlington, there was no gravestone for Zetterlund. Someone from the cemetery said people sometimes have strange last requests, and perhaps Zetterlund wanted to be buried at his favorite duck hunting place. Murder victim from a botched robbery
Then, as his secretary helped him do more research, Dillin found out that Zetterlund had been a murder victim. He was a Kearny butcher shop owner who was shot when he refused to give up his money. Dillin reached out to a friend on the Kearny police who produced photographs of the crime scene. The killer had later confessed. The murder weapon was retrieved from the Meadowlands. One of the photographs showed the head of a deer on the wall of the butcher shop. “He wasn’t a duck hunter; he hunted deer,” Dillin said. The Great Depression was hard on the deer population in New Jersey. Hungry people had hunted them into near extinction. Dillin went back to the site and began to explore. He found that Zetterlund’s stone was one of several stones in the area, but the only one with a name on it. “There were about 30 other pieces there, mostly broken, none of the others had any names on them,” Dillin said.
The spot was unreleated to the nearby pauper’s gravesite in the Meadowlands. That site was famously filled with thousands of graves until the 1990s, when they all had to be moved. Early in the last century, the region was home to a series of county buildings including the almshouse, an asylum, and the old jail, all of which are gone now. Paupers and patients were buried there. When the new Turnpike exit ramp was built to the Secaucus Exchange train station, the graves were moved to North Bergen. Zetterlund’s grave stone was found in a different area. Payments stopped
Dillin contacted the company that likely engraved the stone. John Burns, of Burn Brothers Memorials in Jersey City, went through company records and uncovered a sad story. The stone was originally purchased through Albert Hopper Monuments, one of the companies owned by Burns, which is why he had a record of the transaction. “That company is 132 years old,” he said. “We have records going back to the early 1930s.” “He [Dillin] called us saying he had found the stone in the Meadowlands and wanted to know if it was our stone,” said Burns. “He even sent pictures. I wasn’t around at the time, but the engraving style was consistent with what we did then.” Burns was somewhat skeptical at first, but was won over as Dillin’s research uncovered the back story. “It got very intriguing,” he said. “So I went down into the basement to check our records and found the name on the second page. I thought, ‘God, this is something.” [Zetterlund’s] wife apparently lived in Newark. But what was confusing is how the stone got into the Meadowlands and not the cemetery.” The record showed that the wife had made a number of small payments on the stone, which cost about $115 in 1935. “These were small payments of one or two dollars at a time,” Burns said. “But then they stopped. She had a balance of $28 which was never paid. My guess is that the stone stayed in our yard for a number of years, and that eventually, we loaded it up with other stones and drove out there and dumped them in the Meadowlands. That was before the Turnpike spur was built. The location wasn’t far from our North Arlington offices.” So while Zetterlund’s body was buried in North Arlington, Zetterlund’s wife didn’t make the last payments for the stone. As a result, the stone was eventually dumped into the Meadowlands along with a number of other broken gravestones. In 1975, Rose Zetterlund passed away and was buried in the same gravesite in North Arlington, but it still had no stone. Now, Burns will engrave the original stone with the wife’s name. “This was meant to be,” Burns said. “We were there at the beginning of this. We’ll be there at the end.”
“This was meant to be. We were there at the beginning of this. We’ll be there at the end.” – John Burns
This led to yet another mystery. How did workers get the stone – which weighs close to 600 pounds – onto an island in the middle of the Meadowlands? Dillin searched the internet for historic aerial photos of the area. He discovered that in 1935, the area wasn’t an island, but largely upland. There were dirt roads that led to the site. This changed in 1966 with the construction of the eastern spur of the New Jersey Turnpike, a project that also put an end to the last of the pig farms in Secaucus. The road into the site had once housed relay radio stations for WNEW, WMCA and others. All of these were eventually relocated. “So the whole area changed after 1966 and the site became an island,” he said. “When they put it there, it was more or less dry land.” This, of course, led to the next question: how would Dillin get it out? Yes, he was determined to retrieve the stone. “It became a passion,” he said. He couldn’t sleep at night, thinking about it. John Burns had agreed to add the widow’s name to the stone and then install the stone at its rightful place in North Arlington, if and when Dillin got the stone to him. “I had a made a check list in my sleep of what I would need,” he said. So he got up and assembled an assortment of equipment that included poles, levers, blocks to use as a fulcrum and put it all into the back of his truck. To get even closer to the water, he drove down a former railroad spur from Route 7 and parked his truck at the end. Then back in his kayak, he towed the raft full of equipment to the island. “It was about 300 yards,” he said. Using his tools, he managed to pry it out, but the stone slid off the raft and into the water. “I kept staring at where it went,” he said. “I told myself, ‘I did everything I could. But it’s gone. I’ll never find it.’ ” Then, he did something even he thought was strange. “I took off my clothes and went in after it,” he said. Holding his breath for long intervals, he managed to wrap steel bands around the stone and drag it back onto land. “It took six hours,” he said. Try as he did, he couldn’t get it up onto his truck, and eventually just tied a cable to it and dragged it. A half mile later, the cable snapped and left the stone in the middle of a dirt road in the Meadowlands. He was too tired to move it, and figured it would be safe there until morning. He decided to bring a trailer back and try to load the stone on it. On his way back to pick it up in the morning, a wheel fell off the trailer. A Kearny cop stopped him and asked what he was doing. “I told him I’m on a mission from God,” Dillin said. The cop checked with Dillin’s friend in the department and let him go. But then, Dillin couldn’t find the stone where he had left it. Workers for the Turnpike Authority had apparently moved it – giving him one more moment of panic. But he eventually retrieved the stone, hoisted it onto his truck, and brought it back to the stone carver in Jersey City. “He’s going to put the widow’s name on it and then we’re going to bring it back to the cemetery,” Dillin said. ‘We’re going to do it on Dec. 7, 80 years after the man died.” Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.