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Lawsuit accuses cemetery of losing remains

Plaintiffs allege operators of Eden Memorial Park in Mission Hills broke open vaults and lost or discarded decedents. Owner Service Corporation International says the claims are only allegations.

September 15, 2009|Duke Helfand and Victoria Kim

Operators of a Jewish cemetery in Mission Hills allegedly broke open concrete interment vaults and discarded or lost human remains as they made room for additional decedents, attorneys asserted Monday.

A class-action lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court on Thursday against Eden Memorial Park and its parent company, Service Corporation International, alleges that the cemetery attempted to improperly squeeze plots together for profit, breaking existing vaults and moving or discarding remains in the process.

"We're aware of instances where they literally lost bodies," said Michael Avenatti, the lead plaintiff's attorney. "In other words, loved ones have been going to graves that have been empty."

A manager at the cemetery, which has been receiving numerous calls and visits from angry and concerned family members, declined to comment and deferred to corporate headquarters. A spokeswoman for Houston-based SCI denied the charges and said the company "will not and cannot try this case in the media.

"While very salacious, these allegations are just that -- allegations," company spokeswoman Lisa Marshall said in a statement. "Eden Memorial conducts extensive training with its employees and we support that with strict policies and procedures."

Russ Heimerich, a spokesman for California Department of Consumer Affairs, which oversees cemeteries, said Monday that the cemetery and funeral bureau had taken no action against the cemetery's license. The bureau will investigate the allegations in the lawsuit but Heimerich said seismic activity or accidents could shift human remains in the ground, and cemeteries are not required to report such incidents to the state.

Robert Scott, a plaintiff who joined the lawsuit after seeing a report on CNN about it, said he was concerned about the remains of his parents. Scott's father has been buried at the cemetery for 20 years; his mother, for little more than a year. Scott, a 56-year-old retired furniture manufacturer, said he had no suspicions about conditions at the cemetery until he saw the report.

"Regardless of whether it's my parents or not, that type of desecration shouldn't go unpunished," he said.

SCI has faced similar allegations at two cemeteries in Florida. In 2003, the Florida state attorney general filed criminal charges against the company, a vice president and a superintendent. The former vice president, Jeffrey Frucht, pleaded no contest to three felony charges including conspiracy and served one month in prison and one year on probation, according to the Florida attorney general's office.

In that case, the attorney general charged that the cemetery used backhoes and other heavy equipment to smash and destroy vaults, caskets and remains because the same plot had been sold twice, scattered remains in an adjacent field of wild hogs, or dug single plots twice as deep to "bunk bed" the deceased. The company paid more than $100 million in settlements with families, according to a news release from SCI.

Avenatti said that "close to 100" individual plaintiffs were behind the Los Angeles lawsuit and that the disturbing of remains probably happened "well over 500 times." He said he has statements from former groundskeepers and documents to support the allegations.

Marshall, of the parent company, said that in 2007, employees going through routine training at Eden noticed problems with some interments.

She declined to specify the problems, citing the privacy of families. The company investigated the issues, notified the families and fixed the problems, she said.

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duke.helfand@latimes.com

victoria.kim@latimes.com

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