A Charlotte man found skeletal remains Thursday afternoon at an abandoned cotton mill in Rockingham.
Police assembled on the site of the former TNS Mill on Lee Street on Thursday and Friday where, according to Rockingham Police Chief Billy Kelly, the amateur photographer spotted the remains.
“He was at the old pump house beside the building taking pictures, and he looked into the well and saw skeleton remains,” Kelly said.
The man who found the remains, 26-year-old Walter Burlington, refers to himself as an “urban explorer” but said he never expected to see what he saw on Thursday.
“I was in town visiting my girlfriend’s family,” Burlington said. “I like to explore and take pictures of abandoned buildings and historic sites.”
Burlington said he discovered the old mill in an attempt to kill time on Thursday. He remained out front to take photos, but was eventually approached by a few men in a truck.
“They came around from a side road, all covered in brush and weeds,” Burlington said. “We were each wondering what the other was doing. I told them I was taking pictures, and they said they were there looking for scrap metal. We had a laugh because we each thought the other was going to get us in trouble.”
Burlington said the men told him about a road that would allow him to get inside, and warned him to watch out for a deep hole.
After getting back into his car, Burlington said he drove down the road and discovered the area the men had told him about.
“I saw the area with the vines and brush and got a picture or two,” Burlington said. “Then I went in the buildings and saw some old machinery. But then I thought I’d better find the hole so I don’t fall in, so I walk over there and see it. I saw what looked to be pants and a belt — kinda moldy and old looking. I moved over to my right a little because there’s a pole blocking my view, and I see a rib cage, all black and grotesque, but no flesh or anything like that.”
Burlington said he did not see a head among the remains. “… but I think that’s a good thing because a face is what you associate with a human, so if I’d seen that, I would have really flipped out … ,” he said.
Burlington said the sight startled him back into his car and he drove up to the main road where he notified police.
“I was in shock,” he said. “Sometimes I dig for old bottles and that kind of stuff, and I’ve always had it in the back of my mind that I might uncover something else, but I never really thought anything like that happened. So it definitely was pretty insane and something I’d never imagined would happen to me.”
Also responding to the scene was the State Bureau of Investigation and the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office.
Police said they are not yet able to identify the remains, but have alerted a bone specialist in Chapel Hill. It is unclear how long the identification process will take.
At 4:15 p.m. on Friday, Chief Kelly said the remains had been recovered by a dive team from Cumberland County, and would be sent to Chapel Hill. In the meantime, police said they plan to search missing person reports in Rockingham.
“We have some persons that we’re looking into, but then again, we have no idea who it is, and we won’t know much of anything until we hear from (Chapel Hill),” Kelly said.
Burlington said the haunting discovery would not keep him from exploring new places.
“I don’t think it’s going to stop me,” he said. “I’m really passionate about it, but I may be thinking twice on some of the places I go, and I think I’m going have to bring someone with me next time. Looking back on places I’ve been before, if I had known then what I know now, I may have not gone.
“As much as it was crazy and scary, I feel good about it, because this was somebody who maybe was missing, or someone didn’t know where they were and what happened to them, so hopefully it will bring closure to some family somewhere,” Burlington said.
— Staff Writer Mallory Brown can be reached at 910-997-3111, Ext. 16, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Staff Writer Kelli Easterling contributed to this story.