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State finds no evidence of mass grave disturbances at Valley Jewish cemetery [Updated]

November 12, 2009 |  1:24 pm

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

The lawsuit filed in September against Eden Memorial Park has led to a flurry of concerned and angry family members calling the cemetery and the state regulators and joining the lawsuit.

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

Michael Avenatti, the plaintiff’s 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 over 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 for some reason, the state didn’t adequately follow up,” he said. “The evidence we have been able to uncover shows that the state was asleep at the switch.”

Avenatti said his firm has been retained by about 800 families who have loved ones buried at Eden Memorial but that the potential class for the lawsuit could number in the tens of thousands.

[Updated at 1:10 p.m.: A previous version of this post said Avenatti could not be reached for comment.]

The cemetery’s parent company, Service Corporation International, has denied the charges, calling the allegations “salacious.”

Heimerich said the after the lawsuit was filed the Consumer Affairs Department reviewed five to six years of annual inspection records of the cemetery and saw no indication the desecrations 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 different from previous visits -- and didn’t receive a single call back, he said.

-- Victoria Kim

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