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CALIFORNIA : Claims about cemetery probed : State officials find no evidence of mass grave desecration in Valley.

November 13, 2009|Victoria Kim

State officials said Thursday they have found no evidence of mass grave disturbances at a Mission Hills Jewish cemetery, which was accused in a class-action lawsuit of breaking open interment vaults and losing or discarding human remains to make space for new burials.

The lawsuit was filed in September against Eden Memorial Park.

"We have not seen any evidence of the kind of massive desecration that [is] being alleged," said Russ Heimerich, a spokesman for the state Department of Consumer Affairs, which oversees cemeteries. "The kind of activity they're alleging [is] not easily hidden, especially on a willful, large-scale basis."

Michael Avenatti, the plaintiffs' attorney, called the state's investigation "shoddy, pathetic and virtually nonexistent," saying he had information from former groundskeepers who said they regularly discarded bones two to three times a week for more than 10 years.

"Investigators from the state were told by various groundskeepers over a year ago that they had been repeatedly told to throw bones away, and yet . . . the state didn't adequately follow up," he said.

Avenatti said his firm has been retained by about 800 families, but that the potential class could number in the tens of thousands.

An internal Department of Consumer Affairs document obtained by The Times shows that allegations of desecration were first raised in April 2008 by a manager who worked at the cemetery from September 2006 to December 2007.

State investigators met with a "grounds crew person" who worked there for 15 years and said that "remains and vault debris were removed many times over the course of his employment there," according to the report. State regulators subsequently sent a warning letter in June 2008 to Eden Memorial, stating their investigation found the graves of five decedents had been disturbed in the previous four years. No disciplinary action was taken by the state.

"We did not find any evidence of 500 graves disturbed over 15 years," Heimerich said of the investigation.

A spokeswoman for the cemetery's parent company, Service Corporation International, said she was not surprised by state's findings.

"The state did exactly what we did: We heard these allegations, took them seriously, and conducted an investigation," said spokeswoman Lisa Marshall, who said the company's review of Eden Memorial is ongoing. The firm has denied the charges in the lawsuit.

Heimerich said that after the lawsuit was filed, his agency reviewed five to six years of annual inspection records and saw no indication that the alleged desecrations had occurred.

The agency also asked the dozens of families that contacted officials to look for signs of disturbances -- shifted or cracked gravestones or anything else that appeared altered -- and didn't receive a single call back, Heimerich said.

--

victoria.kim@latimes.com

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