The district attorney’s office is seeking petitioners before taking legal action against the parent company of two local cemeteries.
Assistant District Attorney Stephen Hatchett said Wednesday he would probably file suit in Chancery Court in the near future against the Lawrence Group of Dallas, Ga., owner of Sunset Memorial Gardens and Mausoleum at 7180 North Lee Highway, and Hilcrest Memorial Gardens at 1700 South Ocoee St.
According to Tennessee Code, Hatchett can take action in Chancery Court on the petition of 5 percent of, or 10 lot owners and next of kin of lot owners, whichever is fewer.
Joy Andies, who reported to the state on two occasions that her mother’s crypt was leaking, is collecting the signatures.
“We have 10 signatures, but the more we have the better,” she said Thursday.
Andies said she declined to meet Monday with Cecil Lawrence, president of Cecil Lawrence Inc., doing business as The Lawrence Group.
According to Andies, Lawrence asked to meet with her to discuss what he needed to do to resolve the situation.
“He knows what he has to do and he has it in writing,” she said. “I can’t believe he has just now become interested in finding a resolution. It’s just too little, too late.”
Andies and Lawrence were scheduled to meet Friday with her attorney, James F. Logan.
“But I’m still continuing with the petition,” she said.
Maintenance at Sunset Memorial Gardens and the Mausoleum has been the object of complaints and news stories since March 2011 when John McGowan complained of the heavy tractors used to dig new graves. He said the equipment left ruts in graves and knocked down bronze vases. Also, outriggers used to stabilize the backhoe cracked some of the headstones.
Ralph Buckner Jr. of Ralph Buckner Funeral Home and Crematory, complained to Burial Services of the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance in July 2012. He filed the complaint after a bronze vendor emailed him photos of the three mausoleums showing leakage spilling onto the carpeted floor. Several light fixtures were either burned out or broken, a single-window, air-conditioning unit was broken and the only ventilation came from two box fans. In addition; the roof leaked, there was a broken window and the interior was generally dirty.
In response to Buckner’s complaint, the company submitted a plan of action to Burial Services, which the agency deemed sufficient to address those concerns.
Lawrence wrote in his response to the findings from the state regulatory agency that the “reason for the leak was the crypt was sealed with plywood; the plywood disintegrated and caused the crypt to leak. It should be noted that the crypt was sealed before Cecil Lawrence Inc. took over operations. The crypt was sealed on July 28, 1987.”
The Lawrence Group bought Sunset and Hilcrest cemeteries during bankruptcy proceedings in about 2002.
Buckner said in July that he has received hundreds of complaints about the two cemeteries for probably 15 years.
“I guess I was just fed up with it when I saw the fluid. I kind of ignored the odor for the last two or three years the best I could, and didn’t go up there much in the summertime. I just got fed up with it the other day,” Buckner said.
In September 2012, the Lawrence Group was assessed the largest ever civil penalty issued by the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance Burial Services program.
Over a two-year period in 2008 and 2009, the company made at least 20 withdrawals totaling $1.77 million from the Sunset and Hilcrest cemetery perpetual trust funds. The Lawrence Group agreed to pay $267,450 from four final orders from the state. Of that amount, $114,000 was paid directly to the improvement care funds, and $151,000 was a civil penalty paid to the department. The Lawrence Group also repaid the two trusts.
Tennessee Code states in part, “As to matters within its reasonable control, a cemetery company shall maintain its cemeteries so as to reflect respect for the memory of the dead in keeping with the reasonable sensibilities of survivors of those whose remains are interred in the cemeteries.”
Petition are available by calling the district attorney’s office at 423-472-2179.