Sunset, Hilcrest civil penalties take No. 6 on year’s news list
by By DAVID DAVIS Managing Editor
Dec 26, 2012 | 2782 views | 0 0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The mausoleum at Sunset Gardens is shown in this July file photo. The Lawrence Group of Dallas, Ga., owner of Sunset Memorial Gardens and Hilcrest Memorial Gardens agreed in September to the largest civil penalty ever levied by Tennessee against a cemetery owner. Cemetery maintenance finished No. 6 among the Top 10 stories in Cleveland and Bradley County for 2012. Banner file photo, DAVID DAVIS
The mausoleum at Sunset Gardens is shown in this July file photo. The Lawrence Group of Dallas, Ga., owner of Sunset Memorial Gardens and Hilcrest Memorial Gardens agreed in September to the largest civil penalty ever levied by Tennessee against a cemetery owner. Cemetery maintenance finished No. 6 among the Top 10 stories in Cleveland and Bradley County for 2012. Banner file photo, DAVID DAVIS
slideshow
Maintenance conditions at Sunset Gardens and Mausoleum and Hilcrest Memorial Gardens, and the largest civil penalties ever levied by Tennessee against a cemetery owner finished No. 6 among the Top 10 stories in Cleveland and Bradley County for 2012.

Over a period of two years between 2008 and 2009, the Lawrence Group of Dallas, Ga., made at least 20 withdrawals from the two cemetery perpetual trust funds held on deposit in Douglas County Bank.

In September 2012, the Lawrence Group agreed to pay $267,450 from four final orders from the state agency. 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 $1.77 million to the two trusts. It was the largest ever civil penalty issued by the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance Burial Services program.

Douglas County Bank paid $23,000 in civil penalties for allowing the withdrawals. The bank should have placed a hold on the withdrawal requests because they were trust funds. These trust accounts are now on deposit at Independence Trust Company in Franklin. No trust fund money for the two local cemeteries remains on deposit with Douglas County Bank.

The conditions of local cemeteries is a story that could continue into 2013 if the 10th Judicial District Attorney General receives enough complaints. According to state statute, the district attorney's office can file a civil action to enforce maintenance of a cemetery upon presentation of a petition with either 10 percent, or 20 lot holders or relatives of lot holders, whichever is less.

The report of body fluids leaking from crypts ranks in the Top 10 because poorly maintained cemeteries is a story line that began in May 2003 when former Cleveland Councilman Tim Gobble complained to fellow council members that the part of Fort Hill Cemetery held in private hands was a disgrace to the community.

That part of the saga ended in 2011 after a court fight that went all the way to the Tennessee Court of Appeals at Knoxville. The court overturned Chancery Court Judge Jerri Bryant in favor of the complainant, Betty Saint Rogers. Appeals Court Judge D. Michael Swiney wrote that Rogers did not prove her case against Fort Hill Cemetery owner Joe V. Williams III and Louisville Land Company, which he owns outright. The case had been in Bradley County courts since 2004.

Even while the appellate judges considered their opinion, complaints of poor maintenance practices in Sunset and Hilcrest cemeteries began to surface. John McGowan lodged a complaint about maintenance workers who dug graves using a full-size tractor and placed the feet of the outriggers on headstones. One of the damaged headstones marked the grave of his son.

Dale Lawrence, Lawrence Group, gave a short statement through the local office simply stating, “The issue is resolved; therefore, I have no comment to make.”

McGowan said he visited Lawrence to discuss conditions at the two cemeteries. Lawrence, according to McGowan, agreed not to run over the graves of any of McGowan’s family members.

Nothing more was said about Sunset Memorial Gardens and Mausoleums or Hilcrest Memorial Gardens for more than a year until about five months ago, when Ralph Buckner of Ralph Buckner Funeral Homes complained of fluids leaking onto the floor and unbearable odors filling the mausoleum at Sunset Memorial Gardens.

Buckner’s parents and daughter are interred in the mausoleum. He said the situation brought to mind Tri-State Crematory in Noble, Ga., where more than 300 bodies were destined for cremation, but were dumped instead on crematory property.

Roy Bozeman, Tennessee Department of Commerce & Insurance Burial Services, investigated the complaint. He found what appeared to be body fluids containing unknown chemicals leaking from a crypt and running onto the floor of the mausoleum.

The leakage in the public areas of the mausoleum was classified as a public health and safety issue at the mausoleum. Bozeman suggested to cemetery manager Suzanne Baskette the mausoleum be secured to prevent unauthorized entry until the public health and safety risk could be rectified by the company.

Buckner said lights in the mausoleum were burned out, a single window air-conditioning unit was broken, with the only ventilation coming from two box fans; the roof leaked; there was a broken window; and the interior was generally dirty.

“I hope we can get it cleaned up, that's all I want. I just want us to have a cemetery in town we can be proud of and one we can walk into without becoming nauseous,” Buckner said in July. “Sooner or later, there are probably going to be more of these. The thing is just in total disrepair.

“I'm losing sleep because my daughter and parents are up there and I wonder what condition they are in. Even though they are in some of the best caskets made, with bronze sealers in them, I don't know what condition they are in,” he said. “There's no telling what's happening to others who might not be in as good caskets.”

The Lawrence Group provided a plan of action to Burial Services which was deemed sufficient to address the immediate concerns.

Attorney James Logan said Buckner's complaint did not address poor maintenance conditions raised by many people for a number of years at both cemeteries owned by the Lawrence Group.

The general condition of Sunset Memorial was the subject of a complaint from Loye Hamilton to Burial Services in late June.

“The conditions have become a disgrace to the memory of those who have been laid to rest,” Hamilton wrote in his complaint. “Many graves remain unsown for long periods of time after burial. The concrete drainage ditches are broken with some exposing bare wires.

“At the very least, they should use topsoil on top of the graves so grass will grow.

“All of the problems are strictly caused by inattention and poor management by the owner. I will be more than willing to file a formal complaint or lawsuit in order to get these problems corrected and to ensure this kind of neglect does not happen again in the future.

“After all, this is a perpetual care cemetery where funds are supposed to be deposited in order to fund the ongoing maintenance.”

According to Tennessee Code, cemetery companies are to maintain cemeteries 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. The officers and directors of a cemetery company commit a Class E felony if they fail to set up and maintain the improvement care trust fund.