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Lawsuit claims Mission Hills cemetery disturbed grave sites

September 14, 2009 |  3:47 pm

In a lawsuit filed in L.A. County Superior Court, family members alleged that operators of a Jewish cemetery in Mission Hills broke open concrete interment vaults and discarded or lost human skulls and other remains as they made room for new customers, attorneys said today.

The class-action lawsuit, filed last week against Eden Memorial Park and its parent company, Service Corporation International, claims the cemetery improperly attempted to squeeze plots together to generate more 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 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."

A manager at the cemetery, which has been receiving numerous calls and visits from angry and concerned family members, declined to comment and deferred questions to corporate headquarters.

SCI has faced similar allegations at two of its sites in Florida. In 2003, the state attorney general there 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 probation, according to the Florida attorney general's office.

In that case, the company paid out $100 million in a settlement with families.

Avenatti said "close to 100" individual plaintiffs were behind the lawsuit. He said he had statements from former groundskeepers and documents to back up the allegations.

Russ Heimerich, a spokesman for the California Department of Consumer Affairs, which oversees the Cemetery and Funeral Bureau, said he could not say whether the agency received any "merited complaints" about Eden, but said the bureau has taken no action against the cemetery's license.

He said the agency would investigate the allegations in the lawsuit. He added that remains can be shifted around due to seismic activity or by accident, but that cemeteries are not required to report such incidents to the state. Anyone who believes their relatives' remains have been improperly disturbed should contact the cemetery and funeral bureau at (916) 574-7870, he said.

-- Duke Helfand and Victoria Kim