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How did Rosa Lee die? Family wants answers 66 years after mom is found dead in N.J. wall.

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It was an electrician who made the horrifying discovery on a Monday afternoon in a vacant farm workers’ dwelling.

He was working with a carpenter in the rustic, one-story wooden building when he pulled back an overstuffed chair blocking an opening in a wall.

He looked inside and found a woman’s body stuffed in the cramped space.

Her name was Rosa Lee Pickett.

She was 28 years old.

The woman had been dead for at least a day and her cause of death wasn’t immediately clear, police told local news reporters at the time.

It was September 1957 and the question facing investigators was: How did a mother of five from Detroit end up dead on farm in Cumberland County, New Jersey?

That same question has haunted Rosa Lee’s family for more than 66 years.

Did she die from poisoning or a botched abortion, as some family members have speculated? Or was it a blow to the head, as a death certificate obtained 20 years ago states? Or was it asphyxiation, as someone is law enforcement told the family in 2004?

Rosa Lee’s children were young at the time and later said the adults in their lives didn’t talk about what happened. Newspaper reporters covered the discovery of her body in 1957, but never reported on the outcome of the investigation.

Six decades later, New Jersey State Police remain unwilling to talk about the case or release records of the investigation.

Now, Rosa Lee’s children and grandchildren are on a quest not only for answers about her death, but to ensure her memory is never lost.

Their journey isn’t about blaming anyone for Rosa Lee’s death, because anyone involved is likely deceased, explained her granddaughter, Latonia Moore. Instead, the family wants to find answers.

“Everybody’s gone,” Moore said, “But what came out of the investigation? Where did you all decide to stop?”

This image was taken from the water tower at Seabrook Farms in the 1950s and shows the plant and offices to the right, with dwellings for workers in the distance. Rosa Lee Pickett was found in a vacant house on the farm. (Photo courtesy of Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center, Inc.)(Photo courtesy of Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center, Inc.)

A visit to New Jersey

Rosa Lee had traveled to Seabrook, New Jersey, from her home in Detroit to pick up two of her kids, according to news accounts and the recollections of one of those children.

Those kids, Rochelle and Sandra, were living with an aunt named Emma Pickett, who worked at Seabrook Farms and resided in a cluster of farmworker buildings called Hoover Annex. A Bridgeton Evening News article said Rosa Lee was found inside 33 Hoover Annex, “a stone’s throw” from Emma’s place.

Emma had reported Rosa Lee missing to State Police a day before her body was found, according to reports at the time.

She told police Rosa Lee disappeared two days earlier after failing to return from a “date with friends from Vineland,” according to the Bridgeton Evening News article.

Police told reporters they were speaking to those friends.

The building where Rosa Lee was found was “long-unoccupied,” and the space where her body was hidden was described as a “doorless closet or niche in the wall,” news reports said.

Sandra recalled hearing that her mother was wearing a pink dress and black ballerina slippers when she was found.

Two State Police pathologists, Drs. Edwin Owen and Roderick Camattella, performed the autopsy, but no cause of death could be determined, according to the Evening News article.

“No marks of violence are reported on the body,” the story said.

A “little bruise” on the side of her face was not deemed a factor in her death, according to an article in the Press of Atlantic City, which added that her organs were being analyzed at a laboratory in Trenton.

In that article, police ruled out suggestions Rosa Lee was poisoned, that her neck had been broken or that she died from a blow to the head.

Rochelle’s daughter, Latonia Moore, was born about a decade after her grandmother’s death. But, she wanted to understand what really happened to Rosa Lee and began investigating the cold case 20 years ago.

When she contacted State Police in 2004 to see what she could learn, Moore said she was told files on the death could not be released because it was still an open, unsolved case.

A sergeant, however, gave her a list of names of those Vineland friends Rosa Lee had gone out with, Moore said. She tried contacting them, but had no success. She assumes they’ve died by now.

Moore also obtained a copy of her grandmother’s death certificate in 2004, which listed her cause of death as a blow to the head.

That contradicted something the State Police sergeant told her that same year.

“The sergeant at the time, he called me saying that she did not die from a blow to the head,” Moore said. “She died from asphyxiation, which means however she was placed in the closet, it cut off her airway.”

Rather than finding clarity, Moore was left with additional questions and resumed the search last year following her retirement.

One discovery she made was that news accounts and even her grandmother’s death certificate had the wrong spelling of her first name. They listed her as Rosalie, while Social Security records provide the correct first name, she said.

Moore held out hope that a copy of the police report would finally answer the family’s questions about what happened 66 years ago in Seabrook.

She contacted the State Police again in 2023 to ask for the case file and was told it could not be located. She was then told in December that the report on the investigation was found, but Moore was again denied the file. State Police officials told her the release of investigatory records was exempt under the state Open Public Records Act.

State Police officials also denied an NJ Advance Media OPRA request for the same file and said they did not have a copy of Rosa Lee’s autopsy report. Police have refused to comment on why they won’t release any details from the file to the family or media.

Moore said she has no plans to give up on her quest. Her latest public records request for the case file is currently under review by the State Police, she said she was told.

Seabrook aerial view 1950s

A 1950s aerial view of the Seabrook area, with Hoover Village in upper right corner and the dwellings of Hoover Annex, where Rosa Lee Pickett’s body was found in 1957, to the left of Hoover Village. That’s the current Elizabeth F. Moore School in the middle of the image. (Photo courtesy of Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center, Inc.)(Photo courtesy of Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center, Inc.)

Life in Seabrook

Nestled among the fields of rural Cumberland County, the sprawling Seabrook Farms gained a global reputation as an innovator in the processing of vegetables through freezing, giving food a longer shelf life. It employed around 5,000 people in the 1950s.

Its founder, Charles F. Seabrook, was dubbed the “Henry Ford of Agriculture” for his mass production approach to farming and food processing in the early 1900s. In 1955, Life Magazine called Seabrook Farms the “biggest vegetable factory on Earth.”

The hunger for workers to keep the massive operation chugging along created a melting pot of sorts in the tiny slice of South Jersey.

Facing a labor shortage during World War II, Seabrook hired thousands of Japanese Americans who were being released from concentration camps where they had been held over security fears following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The company actively recruited various groups to come work in New Jersey.

“We had 27 different nationalities here at one time,” said Larry Ericksen, executive director of the Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center, which chronicles the stories of Japanese Americans who settled there, as well as wartime refugees from Europe and migrant laborers who came from elsewhere in the country and the Caribbean.

Worker dwellings like the one where Rosa Lee was found are long gone, Ericksen said.

Charles Seabrook sold the company in 1959, but members of his family later formed a new company, Seabrook Brothers and Sons Inc., which remains in operation today in the same community, growing, processing and freezing vegetables that reach tables across the country and around the globe.

Among those drawn to Seabrook for a job in the early 1950s was Emma Pickett, who, like Rosa Lee, hailed from Detroit.

Two of Rosa Lee’s five children, Rochelle and Sandra, ended up moving from Detroit to live with Emma.

One of those kids, now Rochelle Duncan, said she never really knew her birth mother.

“I was told by Emma that my birth mother gave me to her, because Emma’s child had died and my mother didn’t want any more children,” Duncan recalled. “So, I was just given away.”

Her sister Sandra came to live with them later, she recalls.

Duncan doesn’t remember much about Rosa Lee, who would occasionally come to New Jersey to visit.

“When Rosa Lee would come, she would just come to hang out,” Duncan said. “It was always about having fun, having a good time. And that was it. We didn’t interact at all. So, I don’t remember anything about my mother.”

She recalled Emma, who was her aunt by marriage, as a great mother figure.

“She was very caring and loving, and she was the person who had unconditional love for me,” Duncan said. “She was patient. She was always taking care of someone or nurturing someone.”

Hoover Village in Seabrook

Seabrook Farms worker dwellings in Hoover Annex, were Emma Pickett lived and Rosa Lee Pickett was found dead, were similar to this one in neighboring Hoover Village. None of the structures remain today. (Photo courtesy of Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center, Inc.)(Photo courtesy of Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center, Inc.)

A daughter questioned by cops

Duncan’s sister, now Sandra Austin, is a year older and recalled living with her mother and father on 12th Street in Detroit before moving to Seabrook to live with her aunt. She doesn’t know why she was sent to New Jersey to live with Emma, but remembered Rosa Lee as a good mother.

Austin has fond memories of her time in Seabrook.

“Me and Rochelle went to school, went to church. We had a good life there,” she said. “We were treated well.”

She recalled Rosa Lee coming to New Jersey to bring the kids back to Detroit before her death.

“When my mother got there, we were supposed to leave that Saturday,” Austin said. “We were all packed up to leave that Saturday.”

When she woke up that morning, she saw Emma.

“I asked her where my mother was and she said she had went out,” Austin said.

Then her grandmother, Rosa Lee’s mother, arrived in Seabrook.

“When my grandmother came down, that’s when we found out my mother had died,” Austin said. “They said they had found her body in a house.”

After Rosa Lee’s death, the kids were brought back to Detroit, but it wasn’t a happy reunion, Duncan said.

“The relationship that I had with my father and my grandmother was very strained, because they thought I was withholding information about the death of my mother,” she said. “It was kind of hard.”

Duncan, who was 9 years old at the time, recalled being questioned by Detroit police.

“I really did not know anything had happened until I came back to Michigan,” she said. “I was just picked up, no explanation, and brought back and then interrogated by the police.”

She remembered being scared.

“They were asking me questions about what happened to my mother, where did she go … all these different types of questions which I couldn’t answer,” she said.

They also suggested Emma was involved.

Because her body was found close to where Emma lived, Rosa Lee’s husband thought Emma knew something, according to Duncan.

Moore knows from her 2004 conversation with State Police that Emma was interviewed in 1957 and briefly held by authorities, she said. Emma, who died years ago, was never charged with any wrongdoing.

As part of her search, Moore reached out to Detroit Police, but was told they had no record of the case in their files.

After Rosa Lee’s death, Duncan was not allowed to see Emma again, she said. They didn’t reconnect until after Duncan graduated from high school. That’s when Emma alleged Rosa Lee died following an abortion. It is unclear if police ever investigated the theory.

Austin doesn’t recall ever being questioned about her mother’s death, but does remember the family treating her sister with suspicion.

“They hurt her very badly,” she recalled, her voice choking with emotion. “They kept saying that she knew what happened. She knew what they did to Rosa Lee.”

Duncan and Austin hadn’t discussed those memories before, they said during a recent phone interview with NJ Advance Media, but have now started talking about those difficult times from decades ago.

Emma Pickett

Emma Pickett raised Rosa Lee’s daughter, Rochelle, in New Jersey during the 1950s.(Provided photo/Latonia Moore)

What did investigators learn?

Moore wants to know if Rosa Lee’s Vineland friends were interviewed and what they said. She also wants to know about what the man who found Rosa Lee’s body told police.

Every new detail Moore discovers leads to more questions and without the full police investigation report, her work is incomplete, she said.

“The police told me she died from asphyxiation. If that’s true, why wasn’t the death certificate changed?” Moore said. “If that’s true, why did Emma make up the abortion story?”

Moore wants to know how far New Jersey police went in trying to figure out what happened to her grandmother.

“I want to know what happened, even if we don’t know the final outcome,” she said. “What did you all do in the follow-ups? Did you all just let it go?”

At least, she’d like to know what the medical examinations determined.

“There must be a result to that actual autopsy,” Moore said. “A final finding.”

Duncan remains unsure if her mother’s case was thoroughly investigated.

“I believe that, during that time period, there was a lot of segregation going on. And I believe the police didn’t want to investigate,” she said. “It was just another Black person that died. And that was it. They didn’t want to follow up.”

Rochelle Duncan

Rochelle Duncan stands at the grave of Emma Pickett, the woman who raised her in New Jersey. Emma and Rosa Lee Pickett are buried at the same cemetery in Detroit.(Provided photo/Latonia Moore)

‘She meant something to all of us’

In addition to the uncertainty over Rosa Lee’s death, little evidence remains of her life during the 28 years she was alive, her family said.

“It’s like she was just erased,” Moore said. “We’ve lost so much information.”

The number of family members who may have information about Rosa Lee is dwindling, Moore said. She was an only child and her mother is gone, as is Rosa Lee’s husband, Walter.

Sandra’s daughter, Catherine Phillips, also wants to know about Rosa Lee.

“As we got older, we were inquiring about what type of person she was. What was she like, was she a homemaker, did she work, did she like to dance, what were her hobbies?” Phillips said.

As with her death, though, answers were elusive.

Her grandfather’s family was big on taking photographs, she said, but the family has found only one photo of Rosa Lee.

“My grandfather never mentioned her. Nobody knows anything,” Phillips said. “It’s like she had five children and she just disappeared.

“This is just a whole person that vanished off the Earth. It’s like nobody cared.”

Restoring Rosa Lee’s legacy is even more important to the family today. Several years ago, a cousin named his daughter after her, Moore said.

In addition to ensuring future generations remember Rosa Lee, Phillips wants to find closure for her mother and aunt.

“She meant something to all of us,” Phillips said. “We just don’t know her as a person.”

Family of Rosa Lee Pickett

Shown, left to right, are Catherine Phillips, Sandra Austin, Rochelle Duncan and Latonia Moore. The daughters and granddaughters of Rosa Lee Pickett want to know how she died in 1957 and what was done to investigate her case.(Provided Photo)

‘We want to know the truth’

After her death, Rosa Lee was returned to Michigan and buried in Detroit Memorial Park Cemetery. It’s the same cemetery where Emma was interred decades later, in 1972.

Moore traveled from her home in Texas to see her mother over Thanksgiving and the pair went to the cemetery to visit Rosa Lee’s resting place.

“When we went to the grave site, it was so overgrown,” Moore said.

They knew the section where Rosa Lee was buried, but couldn’t find the spot, because her grave has no headstone.

They went to the cemetery office and staff helped them locate the small marker.

It was an emotional moment for Duncan, her daughter said.

They want to have a headstone made for Rosa Lee and another for Emma.

Moore’s mother and aunt are now in their 70s and revisiting the memories of their mother’s death has been tough, she said. But, Rosa Lee’s family wants to know the full story.

“We want to know the truth,” Duncan said. “We want to know what actually happened to my mom.”

Latonia Moore

Latonia Moore kneels at the grave of her grandmother, Rosa Lee Pickett, while holding the woman’s photograph.(Provided photo/Latonia Moore)

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Matt Gray may be reached at [email protected].

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