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Posted on Sat, Mar. 02, 2002 story:PUB_DESC
Florida adds new lawsuit to cemetery firm's woes

breinhard@herald.com

Menorah Gardens & Funeral Chapels, already taken to court over horrific allegations at cemeteries in Broward and Palm Beach counties, gained a new and formidable legal opponent Friday:

The state of Florida.

The attorney general's office, along with two state agencies that regulate funeral homes and cemeteries, sued Menorah Gardens and its Texas-based parent company, SCI, in Palm Beach Circuit Court.

The state wants to stop Menorah Gardens from running the two cemeteries and asks for a court-appointed expert to take over.

The lawsuit backs up earlier allegations and adds new details, including two instances in Broward County in which two babies were buried in a single grave.

The suit also seeks punitive fines, compensation for cemetery customers and civil penalties of as much as $15,000 per violation from the world's largest funeral operator.

''This is not mere economic crime,'' said Attorney General Bob Butterworth at a press conference at his Fort Lauderdale office. ``This is a crime against the human soul and heart.''

The state's lawsuit supports the claims of a civil lawsuit alleging bodies buried in the wrong place, coffins stacked on top of each other, and occupied plots that were resold. It also affirms the most disturbing accusation: that a backhoe was used to crack open a vault to make room for another body. Pieces of Hyman Cohen's vault, burial shroud and remains were scattered in nearby woods in ''a field of wild hogs,'' according to the state.

SCI disputes that allegation, and said in court documents filed Thursday that radar indicates four vaults in the area where Cohen and three others were buried. SCI spokesman Don Mathis said the vaults appear to be whole.

NEW DETAILS

That assertion was shot down at the press conference by the state comptroller's regional director in Palm Beach County, Brenda Liberti.

''We probed the site, and the vault is in pieces,'' she said. ``Apparently, it was crushed.''

The state's suit also contains new details and allegations. It says:

• In an area called ''Babyland'' at the cemetery on Griffin Road, investigators found two instances in which two babies were buried in a single grave. Records showing the names of the deceased did not match the names on the corresponding grave markers.

• SCI has known since Oct. 24, 1997, that 44 of the 136 burials in the Ben Gurion West section of the cemetery in western Palm Beach County were in the wrong place. Records identify the occupant of one grave as ''unknown.'' Despite SCI's discovery of errors in the Ben Gurion West section and two others, SCI failed to tell family members.

• Three people who records say were buried in the Ben Gurion South section in Palm Beach County are actually in another section.

• SCI has sold nearly all of the available spaces in a mausoleum in the Mount Sinai section in Palm Beach County and has received full payment for about three-fourths of those spaces. Still, construction of the mausoleum has not begun.

SCI spokesman Don Mathis said it's unfortunate the state filed the suit, since the company has been cooperating with officials.

''It's not going to change what we're doing as far as taking care of any problems,'' he said.

The notoriety surrounding SCI in South Florida, coupled with the recent discovery of hundreds of decaying corpses on the grounds of a Georgia crematory, has unnerved consumers nationwide. Inspections of all of the 146 licensed crematories in Florida did not find major violations, said Paul Kirsch of the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

FEDERAL CONCERNS

Federal officials are also taking note. U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, is calling for better state oversight of cemeteries, while U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, R-Lake Worth, wants federal investigators to determine if state laws are adequate, and to decide whether federal intervention is needed.

While the state's lawsuit centers only on two cemeteries, Butterworth and other officials said their examination of SCI-owned sites is continuing. Investigators have indicated concerns about other cemeteries in South Florida, including Forest Lawn in Fort Lauderdale.

Investigators have been combing through records and looking at graves since Dec. 17, two days before the other complaint was filed in Broward Circuit Court.

Of seven sections in the Palm Beach County cemetery, ''systemic'' problems were found in all but the Garden of Abraham, Liberti said. Some grave sites were several feet from where records indicated they should be.

The misburials resulted from a domino effect in which one mistake pushed subsequent burials farther off their marks, Liberti said. Grave diggers lack adequate supervision and cemetery officials withheld information to cover up the extent of the problems, she said.

METAL RODS

Her counterpart in Broward, Tony Armbrister, said his staff used metal rods to probe 890 plots at the Griffin Road cemetery. He declined to say how many errors were found, but said they were ``prevalent.''

Of the eight sections examined, only two -- the Gardens of Sarah and Solomon -- did not reveal major problems.

An attorney for the plaintiffs in the first lawsuit, Neal Hirschfeld, was gratified to hear about the state's discoveries.

''It's satisfying and vindicating for plaintiffs in the case,'' he said.

``Even the naysayers and those that did not or could not believe that these kind of things have occurred can now see our allegations mirrored by the state's top attorney.''

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