By BILL HETHERMAN
City News Service
A cemetery official who trained groundskeepers in proper burial techniques testified today that workers at a Jewish cemetery in Mission Hills made a litany of complaints against their management team in 2007, claiming they were forced to engage in unethical practices regarding human remains.
Michael Ross told a Los Angeles Superior Court jury that he met with the groundskeepers from Eden Memorial Park Cemetery on two consecutive days in mid-October 2007 after he was informed of their grievances during training sessions that took place at Live Oak Memorial Park in Monrovia, where Ross worked at the time as a marketing director.
“They sometimes have to break vaults of the neighboring gravesite to make sure the new ones fit,” Ross' assistant at the time, Patricia Lopez, wrote as she translated what the Spanish-speaking men said, then documented their comments in memos.
Ross said a Spanish-speaking associate conducted the training session with the Eden Cemetery groundskeepers, but that he himself spoke with them later with Lopez's translating help. He said he sent the information to a lawyer for Houston-based Service Corporation International, the parent company of Eden Memorial Park owner SCI California Funeral Services Inc.
Ross was the first witness in the trial of a lawsuit filed in 2009 on behalf of nine plaintiffs representing a class of an estimated 25,000 Eden clients and family members. The lawsuit alleges that SCI and its employees purposely desecrated hundreds of Jewish graves and improperly disposed of human remains and bones.
The lawsuit alleges that groundskeepers were repeatedly instructed by cemetery management to secretly break outer burial containers with a backhoe and remove, dump and/or discard the human remains -- including human skulls -- in so-called “spoils piles” to make room for new burials.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs have estimated damages at more than $500 million.
Members of the class, which could be as large as 25,000, collectively spent nearly $100 million for services over a quarter of a century, according to the plaintiff' lead attorney, Michael Avenatti. He said the case is primarily about the alleged lack of disclosures to Eden Park clients about burial practices there.
The 67-acre cemetery opened in 1954. Comedians Groucho Marx and Lenny Bruce are among those buried there.
Defense attorney Steven Gurnee has said that the plaintiffs' case is based largely on the internal memos even though many of those groundskeepers, as well as some cemetery officials, gave sworn testimony that sharply contradicts what is stated in the documents.
Gurnee earlier this week denied the plaintiffs' claims that remains from Eden graves were dumped in so-called “spoils piles” within the park.
According to the Lopez memos, the Eden groundskeepers said they were pleased to learn during the 2007 training sessions about probing tools commonly used to test the ground for existing graves before digging to make way for new ones. One of the groundskeepers said they had not been doing any probing at Eden, according to the plaintiffs' court papers.
One of the Lopez memos documented complaints by the groundkeepers that Eden management was placing profit above ethics.
“The only thing that matters is closing the deal,” according to the memo. “They all knew they would never want this done to one of their loved ones and knew that the deceased need to be treated with respect and dignity.”
The men also complained about working conditions under their general manager at the time, Oliver Yeo, according to the memo.
“All groundskeepers said they feel like slaves working under Oliver's management,” the memo states.
Yeo was fired after a year on the job, according to Avenatti.
Ross testified that he never managed Eden Cemetery, but has overseen numerous other SCI properties in Los Angeles, San Diego and Tucson. He said he knew of fewer than 10 instances during that time of any irregularities concerning outer burial containers at those cemeteries during the past 15 years.
Avenatti said the class period extends from February 1985, when SCI acquired the cemetery, until the filing of the lawsuit in September 2009. The class members were induced to choose Eden Memorial Park instead of other burial grounds they would have selected had they known about the alleged misconduct there, according to the plaintiffs' attorneys.
New graves were placed over the areas where the discarded remains were placed, Avenatti alleges.
In July 2012, the state Supreme Court denied SCI's attempt to have Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Anthony Mohr's class-certification order overturned.
--City News Service