The remains of scores of bodies, which allegedly were unearthed and dumped in a dirt pile at a Santa Fe Springs cemetery so plots could be resold, were interred Thursday in a mass grave while dozens of onlookers worried that their deceased loved ones were part of the unceremonious burial.
State officials plan to present evidence of the operators' activities to the district attorney's office as early as today. Two of the three operators of the family-owned cemetery retained an attorney, who said they blame the third for the wrongdoing. That operator, in turn, reportedly told a state investigator he was unaware he was breaking the law.
Relatives--some of whom came from as far away as Arizona--gathered outside the gates of Paradise Memorial Park as tractors dug what officials described as a "swimming pool-size" grave next to the pile of remains. It was to be filled and covered by nightfall, and later, turned into a memorial rose garden, a state official said.
The thought of the mass grave brought anger and tears to the eyes of relatives who showed up Thursday at the cemetery. They had learned of the cemetery's transgressions only two days ago, when state officials broke the news.
Kevin Hardiman, who has five family members buried at Paradise Memorial, flew in from Prescott Valley, Ariz., Thursday morning to "find out what the hell's going on."
"We paid for a plot of our own. If we wanted that [a mass grave], we would have had them cremated," said Hardiman, one of about 25 relatives and onlookers at the cemetery at noon.
Fannie Benson of Los Angeles was just as upset.
"They should contact the families before they put them in there," she said.
But state officials said the skull fragments and other remains found in the seven-foot-high pile at the back of the cemetery during the past week were too decomposed to identify or separate for private burial.
So far, 98 allegedly illegal burials have been identified, but there may have been hundreds, officials said.
It may be weeks before investigators have thoroughly reviewed cemetery records and determined, if possible, which remains were interred in the mass grave, said Raymond Giunta, executive officer of the California Cemetery Board. Investigators seized the records and closed the cemetery last Friday.
Burial records "indicate who's been dug up," Giunta said. Cemetery executives "didn't destroy the cards" of bodies that were unearthed and dumped to make room for another sale. "They didn't white them out. They just put a line through the name" of the last person buried.
Investigators also will study the cemetery's use of multiple graves, in which corpses were illegally buried on top of each other. At least one grave contained the remains of seven people, Giunta said.
The investigation began after 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.
State investigators found 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 have pinpointed 98 cases of illegal burials in records dating back to October, Giunta said. They initially planned to review records back to 1991 for the ongoing criminal investigation, but decided to stop at the beginning of last year because of the large number of improprieties already discovered, he said.
Reselling cemetery plots is a felony punishable by up to eight years in prison and a $5,000 fine per count. 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.
The operators of the cemetery, Alma Fraction, 68, and her children, Victor Fortner, 48, and Felicia Fraction, 30, all of Los Angeles, could not be reached for comment.
But Alma and Felicia Fraction retained an attorney, who said that the trust fund money would be accounted for and that his clients were not responsible for the alleged illegal burial practices.
"My clients did not know that anything like that was improperly being done," lawyer Ben Wyatt said. "Victor's the guy."
Wyatt said Fortner began running day-to-day operations at the cemetery shortly after the family acquired it in 1974.
Fortner had told Giunta he thought it was legal to resell graves, the cemetery official said in an affidavit supporting a search warrant.