State officials have seized a Santa Fe Springs cemetery where operators allegedly buried bodies together and resold some grave sites after digging up and dumping interred remains in open piles, officials said Tuesday.
A criminal investigation is continuing into operators of Paradise Memorial Park, where state investigators seized records and took control of the weed-covered facility Friday.
"They were systematically selling and reselling graves," said Raymond Giunta, executive officer of the California Cemetery Board.
A handful of neighbors who buried relatives at the cemetery applauded the state's action and expressed horror at the possible desecration of the remains of their loved ones.
Cora Hatter of Los Angeles said she has nine family members buried at Paradise Memorial Park. Someone else's marker sits atop the spot where her brother was buried last year, she said. The other graves, including that of her grandmother, who was buried in 1960, appear to be in order.
"I just want to know if my brother is still there," Hatter said with tears in her eyes. "The family is still grieving over him. He was just buried last June. This is like grieving all over again."
The probe is focusing on Alma Fraction, the cemetery's chief executive officer, and her grown children, Felicia Fraction, president-general manager, and Victor Fortner, vice president, state officials said at a news conference held at the cemetery. None of the operators could be reached for comment.
Giunta said the investigation began after the operators failed to submit a timely report on the cemetery's endowment fund for the second consecutive year. Cemetery operators are required by state law to put funds into an account to maintain the cemetery once it reaches capacity.
The Fractions and Fortner paid a $1,200 fine to the Cemetery Board for turning in a report four months late last year, Giunta said.
State investigators seized the 1994 records two weeks after they were due, finding evidence that about $33,000 from the cemetery's trust fund was unaccounted for, officials said. They also found evidence of multiple burials and the removal of remains.
Investigators reviewed records dating back to 1991, uncovering evidence of hundreds of illegal burials, Giunta said.
In one instance, the bodies of eight babies were buried in the same grave. In other cases, remains were removed and piled along with dirt and pieces of caskets in an open mound at the back of the cemetery.
On Tuesday, Cemetery Board Investigator Dan Rohling dug his shovel into the pile and came out with a couple of skull fragments, and pieces of handles from a coffin.
Marble and granite headstones and markers that were either removed from graves or never installed were piled in a neighboring shed.
One was for a World War II veteran who was born in 1928 and died in 1990. Another was for a "Beloved Wife, 1885-1949." Investigators say the heap of remains are too decomposed to identify. They plan a mass burial later this week in a plot that will be turned into a memorial rose garden.
It will probably never be determined exactly how much money may have been made, he said.
Reselling cemetery plots is a felony punishable by up to eight years in state prison and a $5,000 fine per count, Giunta said. Burying multiple bodies in a grave without permission from family members is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine of $500 per count.