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State inspecting other SCI cemeteries, plans to sue operator

Saturday, February 23, 2002

By AMANDA RIDDLE, Associated Press

WEST PALM BEACH — The state Attorney General's Office is inspecting several cemeteries owned by Service Corporation International and intends to sue the company as early as next week, officials said Friday.

The office began spot inspections this week at three SCI-owned cemeteries in South Florida.

It wants to know if alleged problems exist at cemeteries other than the two investigated after families filed a lawsuit in December charging grave desecration, said Stephen LeClair, an assistant attorney general in Fort Lauderdale.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Bob Butterworth is reviewing a draft complaint charging SCI with unfair and deceptive trade practices but had a few questions for investigators, said his aide John deGroot.

"Once those questions are answered, the claim will be filed," he said. He said it will be filed jointly by Butterworth and state Comptroller Bob Milligan, who regulates cemetery operations.

Relatives sued SCI in December, charging that the industry giant buried bodies in the wrong place, dumped remains in the woods and oversold plots at Menorah Gardens in suburban West Palm Beach and western Broward County.

The accusations sparked the state investigation.

SCI spokesman Don Mathis said the company knows of no problems at its other cemeteries, which have received favorable reports by state regulators in the past.

"Overall the audits have been very positive," he said. "The company's been very open to say, 'Go take a look at these,' even though they aren't a part of the case."

Mathis admits that the cemeteries' previous owners buried bodies in the wrong row but denies remains were moved or disturbed. He said SCI won't know the extent of the problem until it re-maps the graveyards, a process expected to last six to eight months.

SCI of Houston is the world's largest cemetery company. It owns 60 funeral homes and cemeteries in Florida.

State investigators have begun to inspect Hillcrest Memorial Park in West Palm Beach, South Dade Memorial Park in Miami and Forest Lawn Funeral Memorial Gardens Central in Fort Lauderdale.

The team examined burial records at all three sites and randomly probed a dozen Miami gravesites with a metal rod to confirm whether burial vaults were in the correct spot.

"In each instance, everybody was where they were supposed to be," LeClair said.

Investigators plan to return to the cemeteries to review more documents and continue probing the ground. LeClair said they planned to visit another seven cemeteries in the coming weeks. He didn't immediately have access to a list of the other locations.

By comparing burial contracts to interment documents, officials can determine whether the purchaser of a plot is the person actually buried in that space. Attorneys representing families who sued SCI claim hundreds of bodies are buried in the wrong location at the two Menorah Gardens cemeteries.

LeClair said it's too early in the inspections to determine if the alleged botched burials extend to other locations.

"I find the results that we had at South Dade very encouraging," LeClair said. But "while that is an extremely positive sign to me, it's not a representative enough sampling for me to draw any meaningful conclusions."

 
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