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Family Wins Suit Over Man's Cremation : Death: Jury orders Ventura County to pay $211,000 for failing to notify relatives that body was in coroner's custody. Remains were dumped in a mass grave.

December 07, 1991|SANTIAGO O'DONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VENTURA — Pascual Escoto wanted to be buried next to his wife's grave in Tijuana.

Instead, the retired factory manager's body was cremated by the Ventura County coroner's office and his ashes dumped in a Westlake mass grave.

Earlier this week a Ventura County Superior Court jury ordered the county to pay Escoto's three sons and three daughters a total of $211,000 because the county failed to notify Escoto's next of kin that the coroner's office had the body.

But for Escoto's family, which has lived in the Fillmore area for 50 years, the damage award was small consolation.

"How can I get over what happened?" asked his daughter, Margarita Perez, 41. "These people made my father disappear like magicians. I know God took him, but the county treated him like a drifter."

Perez said money was not what drove her to file a negligence lawsuit. "They offered me a settlement to shut my mouth, but I rejected it because I wanted everybody to know what kind of people work for the county," she said. "Fortunately, God guided our lawyer and we won."

Escoto, 67, suffered a heart attack at a Fillmore gas station near his home early this year. He was found dead, slumped on the gas station's couch, on the night of Jan. 29, said Perez's attorney, Bruce Mayfield.

The jury found Deputy Coroner James Wingate primarily responsible for the mistake, Mayfield said. According to court testimony, Wingate searched Escoto's wallet but did not find a small telephone book--containing the names and phone numbers of relatives--that was inside it, Mayfield said. Escoto had been carrying the wallet in a back pocket.

Wingate also visited Escoto's former home in Santa Paula and retrieved Escoto's medical records from Ventura County Memorial Hospital. But the deputy coroner failed to notice Escoto's current Fillmore address at the bottom of one of the medical forms, and he overlooked a form containing the name of Escoto's son, who was listed as next of kin, Mayfield said.

And at least four relatives who live nearby were listed in the local phone book, he said.

Judy Giroux, Ventura County's deputy public administrator, also was found responsible for failing to locate Escoto's family before signing the cremation order. Giroux tried to find Escoto's address in a 1985 directory. Escoto's relatives were listed, but Escoto was not, Mayfield said.

Escoto's six children--Perez, Yolanda Escoto, Rosa Sierra, Pascual Jr., Evaristo and Alfredo--also were found to be partly responsible for not notifying police that their father was missing until 11 days after his death. By then it was too late; he was cremated eight days after his death.

Mayfield said he believed the children were not at fault. "He was a very independent person and often took trips to San Diego and Tijuana to visit friends without giving notice," he said.

County Coroner Dr. Warren F. Lovell apologized for the mistake.

"I think we could have done a better job and I'm sorry we didn't," he said. "In the past, we've done a remarkable job finding relatives of some people."

Wingate was thrown off track because Escoto's driver's license had an old address, Lovell said. "We have to do better," he added.

But for Perez and her siblings, the money and the apology do not mean much, she said.

"It doesn't ease the anger," Perez said. "We wanted to give my father the Christian burial with all the honors he deserves. We wanted to know where he is so I could talk to him and pray for him. He always told us he wanted to be buried with our mother. They wanted to be together."

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