Ending legal action by relatives whose family graves had been mishandled by a Santa Fe Springs cemetery, a court commissioner approved a $3.9-million settlement Thursday with about 40 mortuaries in the Los Angeles area.
"The court made the right decision. I don't think anything can be done to improve the settlement amount received," said Mike Arias, one of the lead attorneys for the plaintiffs.
But some of the families involved said they felt little sense of closure.
"The amount of money they're offering us is not enough to compensate all these people who are hurting," said Joyce Esquivel, a Rialto minister who has been storing the headstone from her son's grave in her car trunk since discovering that his body was missing from his burial site at Paradise Memorial Park.
Audrey Hughley, who has eight relatives buried at Paradise, burst into tears after the ruling was announced Thursday. "For years I didn't cry, and now I can't stop," she said. "They don't just slap our face. They spit on our graves. We can only pray that somebody up there will hear our cries."
Last year, Los Angeles Superior Court Commissioner Bruce Mitchell approved a $4.5-million settlement with Paradise. His latest ruling brings the total settlement to about $8.4 million, all of which is being paid by insurance companies. Lawyers will receive about one-third, and $2 million will go to a trust fund to maintain the cemetery, the attorneys said. The remainder minus other costs will be divided among claimants who could number in the thousands.
Paradise, a cemetery that served a predominantly African American clientele, had been suspected of misdeeds by people who buried relatives there but couldn't find their graves, or found tombstones had been moved.
In 1995, state investigators discovered that Paradise employees routinely dug up caskets to resell sites and sometimes piled bodies in a single grave. Investigators also found a 7-foot-high pile of dirt containing human bones.
Paradise's owner, Alma Fraction, and her daughter Felicia were sentenced to County Jail in 1997 for scheming to dig up bodies and resell graves. Alma Fraction was sentenced to one year and her daughter to 180 days. Fraction's son, Victor Fortner, a groundskeeper, was sentenced to three years in state prison for disinterring human remains. Altogether, an estimated 3,000 out of 26,000 burials at Paradise were questionable, Arias said.
Some of those who filed suit against Paradise said they are especially disturbed by what seems to be a pattern of misconduct by cemetery operators in the Los Angeles area against black communities.
Last year, a lawsuit against about 25 mortuaries that referred clients to Lincoln Memorial Park in Carson, another mostly African American cemetery that had been accused of moving headstones and reselling grave sites, was settled for about $1 million. Litigation against Lincoln is pending.
Some families have accused Lincoln's state-appointed receiver, J. Michael Mintz, of misappropriating funds, reselling graves and moving headstones, and are seeking court permission to sue him. Mintz, through his lawyer, declined to comment.
A class action lawsuit has been filed against a third cemetery with a large African American clientele, Angeles Abbey Memorial Park in Compton, for allegedly burying bodies under a road and parking areas.
Arias, who is also an attorney for plaintiffs in the Lincoln case, said he did not believe the victims' race was an issue. "It's a matter of taking advantage of people who are low-income, and in this case they happen to be predominantly African American."
Although some were unhappy with the Paradise settlement amount, lawyers said it was the best they could do.
There was no "smoking gun" showing that mortuaries knew what was happening at Paradise, said Federico Castelan Sayre, one of the attorneys in the case. "Our chances of success against any mortuary at trial was not good."
The families might find some consolation in the establishment of the trust fund to keep the cemetery open and "truly make Paradise into a memorial park," Arias said.
Mitchell's decision followed an unusual hearing last week at which more than 40 people with relatives buried at Paradise spoke. The courtroom audience of about 200 sometimes cheered, heckled speakers or shouted. At one point, half the audience rose and stormed out.
The families say they remain angry at the state government--which could not be sued because it has immunity--for having failed to inspect and audit the cemeteries for many years.
"The state has let consumers down," said Toni Moore, who has 38 relatives buried at Paradise and is president of the nonprofit organization that will manage the cemetery starting April 16.
The now-defunct state Cemetery Board, which regulated trust fund cemeteries like Paradise and Lincoln, was poorly funded and for many years didn't have authority to issue citations, said G.V. Ayers, chief of the cemetery and funeral program for the state Department of Consumer Affairs. That department assumed regulatory oversight in 1996. Since then, the budget for cemeteries has more than doubled, to more than $1 million, Ayers said, and there are now two full-time inspectors.
Verifying claims will take several months, Arias said, and payment to the families should begin in December.
Some of those who aren't sure where their relatives are buried say they may never find peace.
"How can I face my grandson and say, 'Baby, I don't know where your mother is buried'?" said BarbaraJane Hester. "How can you explain this to children when you can't explain it to yourself?"