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Once Called 'Worst' Cemetery, Tujunga Site Slowly Improving

January 15, 1987|GREG BRAXTON | Times Staff Writer

Rhett Walker has "holy ground" in his front yard, not to mention quite a few gravestones.

Walker, 27, is the live-in caretaker at Verdugo Hills Cemetery in Tujunga, a deteriorated, non-operating graveyard that officials once called the state's worst.

Its condition has gradually improved since the state Cemetery Board, which gained control of the remote hillside facility in 1978, began a continuing struggle to clean it up and make it presentable to the surrounding residential community.

From his A-frame house at the graveyard, Walker, who also works in his family's sewer maintenance business, can look across the hill to the house where he grew up. The cemetery, also known as Hills of Peace, is above the hills and trails he explored endlessly as a youth.

'More Like a Church'

"All I want to do is get this place to look nice," Walker said. "I don't look on it as a graveyard. It's more like a church. It's holy ground."

But the private cemetery through the years has symbolized more horror than holiness for the community.

The 64-year-old, 10-acre cemetery gained statewide notoriety in 1978 when a rainstorm eroded the already unstable hillside, unearthing corpses, coffins and mud and depositing them in neighbors' yards. About 41 graves were left partly exposed in a 1,500-square-foot area of the graveyard.

The City of Los Angeles spent more than $200,000 collecting the corpses, storing them, and building a retaining wall to prevent any more from slipping into the neighborhood during flooding.

The cemetery had been a refuge for gang members and drinking teen-agers for a decade, and abandoned cars and trash were scattered about.

State Controls Fund

The state Cemetery Board was granted control by a Los Angeles Superior Court in November, 1984, of an endowment care fund, made up of state burial and cremation fees, for the maintenance of the graveyard. The Institute for Christian Research, a nonprofit organization, owns the cemetery.

The endowment fund has grown to about $80,000, officials said, and the state spends about $6,000 in interest a year from the fund for maintenance. There is no plan to reopen the cemetery, which closed in 1976 after losing its license.

"Right now, our long-term goal is to increase the endowment fund, and also to improve the level of maintenance," said John Gill, director of the state Cemetery Board.

"Unfortunately, this is a cemetery built in the wrong place," Gill said. "It's hard to grow grass up there, and the soil is very poor. We'd like to eventually level off the ground. It's not the worst problem our board has, but it's still a big problem."

The board hired Walker to regularly guide the cleanup operation. He is allowed to live at the cemetery rent-free in return for about 30 hours a month of maintenance.

For several months this year, Gill and other board officials felt that Walker was not living up to his contract. They complained about broken asphalt in the driveway, trash and clutter accumulating around the mausoleum and weeds covering some of the graves.

Poor Conditions

In November, Gill and other officials were still unhappy with the condition of the cemetery, and told Walker he would have to leave by the end of the year if he didn't devote more time to cleaning the cemetery. That ultimatum angered Walker.

"How much do they expect me to accomplish on 30 hours a month?" Walker said in November. "I'm spending 40 hours a week busting my butt up here, trying to get everything nice. I stopped people from coming up here, trashing the place, drinking. I've missed a lot of work from my other job being up here. I've put a lot of sweat and blood in this place."

Gill said last week that, in November and December, Walker had shown some improvement, and would be allowed to stay at the cemetery. "He's achieved 95% of our objectives, but we still want to keep an eye on him," Gill said.

Clearing Tools, Trash

Last week, Walker was still clearing assorted tools and trash containers from around the mausoleum. A tractor sat in the back of the cemetery. The grounds were mostly clean but bleak and colorless. Part of a cement grave vault lay isolated on the soil.

But plants and a garden blossomed in front of Walker's home. A sunken fish pond glistened near his front door.

Over the next several months, Walker said, he and several friends would continue to cut weeds at the steepest part of the cemetery and would start planting grass.

He also wants to rebuild one of the cemetery's stone walls and restore a marble slab that bears this inscription:

"If our names are not noted here--they are boldly written in the Book of Life."

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