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Paradise Cemetery Groundskeeper Charged With Reselling Plots

Scandal: Sante Fe Springs caretaker admits digging up coffins and selling graves again, but says he didn't know it is illegal. His mother, the owner, and sister, the general manager, are accused of embezzling funds.

January 24, 1996|ERIC SLATER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the most grisly case to come out of the Southern California cemetery scandals, the groundskeeper of a Santa Fe Springs graveyard faces 69 felony counts of illegally digging up remains, grand theft, fraud and embezzlement, authorities said Tuesday.

The groundskeeper's mother, who owns Paradise Memorial Park, and sister, general manager of the facility, also face three counts each of embezzling maintenance funds from the cemetery, Los Angeles County sheriff's officials said.

Victor Fortner, 48, of Los Angeles and his sister, Felicia Fraction, 31, of West Hollywood were arrested Monday night, hours after a grand jury released criminal indictments against the three. Their mother, Alma Fraction, 68, is expected to turn herself in today.

Fortner was held on $568,000 bail and Felicia Fraction on $108,000 bail. Alma Fraction is also to be held on $108,000 bail. An arraignment scheduled for Tuesday was postponed until Jan. 30.

The indictment charges that Fortner, who oversaw the day-to-day operation of the cemetery, "systematically disinterred old graves and resold them," and that all three suspects embezzled endowment care funds, said Sheriff's Sgt. Scott Clark, who led a 10-member task force investigating the cemetery.

The interest from such funds, which are mandated by the state and paid into each time a grave is purchased, is to cover cemetery maintenance costs.

In June 1995, the now-defunct state Cemetery Board began investigating complaints that Paradise was so run-down as to be a health hazard. As word spread of problems at the site, the inquiry grew to include several Southern California graveyards and kicked off a scandal that state officials now say will result in more arrests.

Investigations are underway at Lincoln Memorial Park in Carson and Angeles Abbey Memorial Park in Compton, according to the state Department of Consumer Affairs, which now regulates cemeteries. At Lincoln, investigators found headstones heaped in trash bins and evidence that endowment funds had been looted. At Angeles Abbey, the alleged transgressions included headstones found lying in the roadway.

The alleged misdeeds at Paradise, however, have been the most macabre.

According to investigators, cemetery workers under the direction of Fortner routinely dug up caskets at the sold-out graveyard and replaced them with those of the newly deceased. In other graves they found six to seven bodies buried after operators allegedly sold the plot over and over without moving old remains.

And behind a tool shed, investigators discovered a 7-foot-high, 50-foot-long dirt pile filled with human bone fragments.

"Nothing like this has ever happened in California," Ray Giunta, the former executive director of the Cemetery Board, said Tuesday. "They've had trust fund problems, but never the . . . disinterment of bodies."

Giunta is under investigation for allegedly accepting money from a cemetery under his regulation. He has denied the allegations.

Fortner acknowledged to investigators that he dug up coffins and resold graves, but said he didn't realize it is illegal, said Sheriff's Sgt. Clark.

Clark said there were approximately 3,000 incidents of illegal disinterment at the cemetery, all detailed in well-kept records.

"Their records were very accurate," Scott said. "If someone was moved, they reflected that."

The attorney for the Fractions, Ben Wyatt, said Tuesday that the case against his clients amounted to little more than "an accounting controversy." Fortner's temporary attorney could not be reached for comment.

But relatives of those buried at the cemetery welcomed news of the arrests.

"I think this is what everybody's been waiting for as far as justice," said Francine Davis, whose father and brother are buried at Paradise. "But as far as peace of mind, people still want to know where their relatives are."

Despite the months-long investigation, many will never know exactly where their loved ones lie, investigators say, or how many others may share the same plot.

"With my father, I found out that he has four other people in the grave with him," said Davis, who now performs record-keeping duties at the troubled Lincoln Memorial Park. "And where they say my brother is, I don't think that's him."

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