Stranger than fiction

By Karen Zautyk

Observer Correspondent 


For nearly eight decades, Theodore Zetterlund of Kearny lay in an unmarked grave in Holy Cross Cemetery, North Arlington. This past Sunday, 79 years to the day that he was killed by a bandit, he finally got his headstone.

His widow had bought it a few months after his death. But it was never installed. And for most of those intervening years, it was missing.

How it came to be found and at long last placed where Zetterlund rests is an incredible tale — a fantastic story involving a kayak and killie fish and an island that once was not an island and weeds and mud and water and a Kearny Police Department murder file and a case of the right person being in the right place at the right time.

That person is Bruce Dillin of Bayonne, a man who says he was “on a mission from God.” (Lest you think Dillin is some sort of religious fanatic, please note that he is using a quote from “The Blues Brothers.” This also was the explanation he gave a cop who spotted him prowling around the South Kearny swamps. Luckily, Dillin has a friend on the force.)

Now, as intriguing an individual as Dillin is, we will not start this saga with him. We start with Theodore Zetterlund, who owned a butcher shop/grocery store on Davis Ave. at Tappan St. in Kearny. (See ‘Then & Now,’) 

According to the news account in the New York Times: Shortly after 10 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 7, 1935, the 58-year-old Zetterlund and his wife, Kathryn, were closing up shop for the day when a man armed with a sawed-off shotgun entered the premises, told the merchant to raise his hands, and demanded he turn over his money.. Zetterlund would not comply with either order. Without saying another word, the bandit fired, at close range, fatally wounding the victim in the stomach.

The killer then fled, empty-handed, and was reportedly seen running into nearby West Hudson Park. Police cordoned off the area and searched, but did not find. That night, anyway.

An investigation led to the arrest in August 1936 of a Vincent Millinavich, who reportedly was tried, found guilty, sentenced to life and died in prison. We have no further details since we have not yet had a chance to examine the 800-page file.

In any case, Zetterlund was interred at Holy Cross, and the widow ordered a headstone, inscribed with his name and date of death. The price was $115 — quite a substantial sum during the Depression. (An inflation calculator indicates that amount is the equivalent of $1,993.05 in today’s dollars.)

She was making installment payments in small amounts — $8, $5, $2, $10 — and then they abruptly stopped. The headstone was never put on the grave.

Fast forward to May 2014.

Fisherman/hunter/ outdoorsman Bruce Dillin was kayaking on the Hackensack River near Laurel Hill Park in Secaucus, looking for killies to use as bait for fluke, when he saw a small island in a Meadowlands pond. “I landed my kayak and walked about 60 feet through 8-foot-high weeds, and I found myself looking straight down at a tombstone,” Dillin recalled. It bore Theodore Zetterlund’s name and the date of death. (At the time of discovery, Dillin had no idea who this person was, much less knowledge of the murder backstory.)

Photo by Karen Zautyk At Sunday’s ‘Rest in Peace’ service at gravesite in Holy Cross Cemetery (from l.): The Rev. Gary Grindeland, headstone hero Bruce Dillin, and John Burns of Hopper Monuments.
Photo by Karen Zautyk
At Sunday’s ‘Rest in Peace’ service at gravesite in Holy Cross Cemetery (from l.): The Rev. Gary Grindeland, headstone hero Bruce Dillin, and John Burns of Hopper Monuments.


His mind began racing: “How did it get here? Is this guy buried here? How did they bring him here? In a boat?”

Dillin is not one to leave questions unanswered.

One of the first things he did was to call a friend, Timothy Doolan, an environmentalist with the N.J. Turnpike Authority, who directed him to online topographical maps and aerial photos of the meadows in the mid-’30s, from which he learned that the island had not been an island then. It was dry land accessible by a road.

“And through the power of the internet,” Dillin said, “my secretary, Barbara, found out that Zetterlund was buried in Holy Cross.”

“This is a man with two tombstones,” Dillin thought. But in June, he went to the gravesite “and . . . no tombstone!”

“The plot thickens, I thought.”

How much, he couldn’t guess. Word of his find, and quest, eventually reached his friend on the KPD, for whom the name “Zetterlund” rang a bell. The officer did some research and found the murder file. (Interestingly, that sawed-off shotgun used to kill Zetterlund was also fished from the Meadowlands, where the killer had thrown it.)

To solve the headstone mystery, the cemetery suggested that Dillin contact Albert H. Hopper Monuments “since they’ve been around the longest” — more than 130 years. And it turned out that Hopper, located on Ridge Road in North Arlington, directly across from the cemetery entrance, was the same company that produced Zetterlund’s headstone.

Dillin learned this after enlisting the help of Hopper’s current owner, John Burns of Burns Bros. Memorials, Jersey City, who hunted through old files in the basement and found Zetterlund’s. Burns learned that when the widow’s payments stopped, she had a balance due of $28.

Burns surmises that the stone simply sat in the company’s yard “for a long time.” “At some point,” he said, “they must have cleared out the yard.”

In those days, there was road access to the place in the Meadows where it was found, so Burns assumes it was just dumped there. Perhaps with some granite leavings from other work, since Dillin said there seemed to be a few chunks of uninscribed stone on the same island.


KPD Police photo, taken Aug. 18, 1936, shows Walter White of Jersey City, employee of the Hudson County Mosquito Exterminating Commission, with shotgun/murder weapon he found in a creek in the meadows.
Police photo, taken Aug. 18, 1936, shows Walter White of Jersey City, employee
of the Hudson County Mosquito Exterminating Commission, with shotgun/murder weapon he found in a creek in the meadows.


“Normally, we do everything possible to get a stone on the grave,” Burns noted. (But he wasn’t around back in the ‘30s or ‘40s.)

Burns offered to refurbish the Zetterlund stone and add the name of Kathryn J. Zetterlund, whom Dillin learned had been lying in the same unmarked grave as her husband since her death in 1975.

But first, someone had to get the stone out of the swamp.

Last month, Dillin (who had been more or less possessed by this project, this “mission from God”) returned to the island with his kayak and a raft, two 10-foot long posts, bricks to use as levers, a pry bar, steel cable and other tools.

He worked at the task for an hour and 45 minutes and was finally able to move the stone onto the raft.

And it immediately slid off and sank.

“You were in the Marine Corps!” Dillin told himself. “You can do this!”

To get the thing out of the swamp, he worked in and under the November-cold water for six more hours, four of them while stark naked. He had stripped to make the underwater work easier. (He organizes an annual Polar Bear Plunge, so you could say he had some preparation for the frigid conditions.) Luckily, no police were around to witness this part of the operation.

The submerged headstone was recovered. But Dillin couldn’t lift it onto his truck. He started towing it along the ground, but the cable broke. So he left the stone in the middle of a rarely-used road, intending to return with a hoist.

When he came back the next morning, the stone was gone. Seems a Turnpike maintenance crew had moved it. Dillin searched the weeds, and for the third time Zetterlund’s headstone was reclaimed from the meadows.

Dillin, who had been losing sleep over this quest, delivered it to the monument company, contacted Holy Cross and then the Archdiocese of Newark, which had to approve of the placement of the stone on the grave. The Archdiocese also managed to locate a distant relative of the Zetterlunds, since family approval also was needed.

And at 2 p.m. this past Sunday, Dillin, Burns and a few others gathered at the grave for a brief dedication ceremony conducted by the Rev. Gary Grindeland, pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, Bayonne.

Theodore Zetterlund can now rest in peace.

And so can Bruce Dillin.

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