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Owners of Compton Cemetery to Pay $100,000 in Plea Deal

Court: State had closed the facility after bone fragments and casket shards were found on the grounds. Families criticize agreement.

November 02, 2001|DAREN BRISCOE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The owners of a Compton cemetery shut down after state investigators found bone fragments and casket shards strewn on the grounds agreed Thursday in Compton Superior Court to pay $100,000 in fines, penalties and restitution.

In a deal reached with the district attorney's office, Evergreen Memorial Care Corp. also pleaded no contest to selling burial plots without a license, burying multiple bodies in single graves without authorization, and failing to bury bodies within a reasonable amount of time at Woodlawn Cemetery on Central Avenue.

In addition to Woodlawn, the company owns Evergreen Cemetery in Los Angeles.

Under a prior agreement with the state, Evergreen must sell or transfer Woodlawn to a third party by Dec. 17.

Gary Nielsen, a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney, said he was happy with the plea agreement.

"We did a good job with evidence we had of securing something very beneficial to the community," he said.

The plea agreement ended criminal proceedings for the cemetery that came under scrutiny in February 2000, when a woman called the state Department of Consumer Affairs to complain that she couldn't find a relative's headstone.

An investigator who went to the cemetery noticed a bone sticking out of a pile of dirt, prompting an investigation.

The cemetery's license was revoked in March 2001 by state regulators who charged Evergreen with cutting across 48 old graves to make room for new ones. County prosecutors subsequently charged Evergreen with two felonies.

Under the agreement announced Thursday, the company was allowed to plead no contest to one felony and two lesser charges in exchange for payments of more than $96,000 to a fund that will pay for maintenance and upkeep of the 25-acre cemetery.

"We took pleas in return for us getting more for the cemetery," Nielsen said. Evergreen was charged $3,240 in fines and penalties and will pay the remainder of the $100,000 to an endowment fund for cemetery care.

"If they had simply walked in and pleaded guilty to everything, the judge would have fined them $20,000," Nielsen said.

Several families angered by the agreement held a news conference Thursday outside the Compton courthouse.

The families, members of a group called the Woodland Memorial Park Foundation, said that in light of the accusations against Evergreen, they can't be sure where the remains of relatives buried at Woodlawn are.

Several said headstones were missing entirely or moved from their original locations.

"I don't even know where my mother is," said Regina Kelly, who buried her at Woodlawn in 1999.

Kelly said that she hadn't saved enough money to pay for a headstone when the cemetery was shut down in February, and that she was told her mother was buried in a plot in a different location from the one she paid for.

Other foundation members recounted scenes of disarray and disrepair when they visited relatives' graves before the investigation. Several said they were unaware of any criminal proceedings against Evergreen until a few weeks ago, and faulted the district attorney for not informing them.

"They ought to go to jail," Beatrice Garcia said of the cemetery owners. Garcia, whose in-laws are buried somewhere at Woodlawn, remembers a different burial site from the one now marked by their headstones.

Nielsen said that all of the disturbed graves involved in the investigation dated to the 1920s, and that no relatives of the people buried in those graves had been located.

He said "poor management" by the cemetery's owners did not necessarily amount to criminal action.

"I don't think there's a criminal code that deals with overgrown grass or gopher holes," he said.

"If people can't find their relatives because of poor record keeping or bad management, then they can sue, and they should, but it's not criminal."

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