Dead Wrong

Relatives say Hollywood Cemetery sells the same plot over and over, stacks graves and buries people where they don t belong. And then forgets about them.

"On the surface, it seems that the funeral home had to know where the body was to be interred," Robbins wrote in a letter to state Senator Jon Lindsay. "How did they know when and where to stop the hearse and unload the casket of the decedent if they had no knowledge of the place of final disposition?"

The commissioner referred the other complaints to the Texas Department of Banking. In a referral letter to the banking department, the commission's investigator wrote that the cemetery's Porter & Hedges attorney, Jo Vorpahl, "assured me that Mr. Olmos misspoke when he said that the cemetery's records are not complete and in order."

The banking department basically acts like the Better Business Bureau, facilitating discussion and asking the cemetery to address and hopefully resolve concerns. "They do not have the burial records and they do not have the files," Olmos says. "They just bring something to our attention."

Rick Rojas and Patricia Flores say their father's grave was sold three times.
Daniel Kramer
Rick Rojas and Patricia Flores say their father's grave was sold three times.
Evelyn Fletcher and Gilberto Salazar want their mother's body exhumed.
Daniel Kramer
Evelyn Fletcher and Gilberto Salazar want their mother's body exhumed.

The cemetery's most recent audit conducted by the banking department, dated December 31, 2001, documented three operational concerns and two violations of Texas law -- one a repeat violation. According to the report, the cemetery's trust fund had a $3,000 overdraft and the cemetery had once again submitted an inaccurate annual statement of funds.

The examiner wrote that "Several violations of applicable law are in evidence and/or operating records are inadequately maintained. These operating and compliance weaknesses may have resulted in a material trust fund deficiency."

Hollywood was placed in a group of cemeteries that "require more than normal supervision to assure correction of deficiencies and preservation of trust funds."

On a spring Sunday morning three years ago, Gilberto Salazar ate a stack of Whataburger hotcakes then went to Hollywood Cemetery to visit his mother's grave, as he did every weekend.

But that morning -- two years after Bertha Torres Esperza's funeral -- he found her headstone tossed aside and another headstone, engraved with someone else's name, erected in its place.

His sister, Evelyn Fletcher, says she confronted cemetery officials several times to no avail, before hiring Houston attorney David Vallance. The former general manager of Hollywood Cemetery, Michael J. Terry, wrote Vallance a letter stating that not only was Fletcher's mother buried in the proper plot, but Fletcher herself was buried one space away.

Last June, cemetery employees stuck a pole into the ground and tapped on top of the vault enclosing the casket (because Houston's ground is moist, people often enclose coffins in solid cement vaults so they don't move in the mud) to determine which type of vault was buried below. "The probe is a metal device that allows us to understand where the outer burial container is in the gravesite," Olmos says. "It's not a means of identifying the body or anything like that."

The cemetery staff told Fletcher that they were able to determine that her mother's tiered-top vault was below. The problem with that answer, Vallance says, is that her mother was buried in a flat-topped concrete case. "Rather than answer questions, they raised questions," Vallance says.

In September, Vallance proposed that the cemetery exhume the coffin, possibly open it, and see if Fletcher's mother's heart bracelet was inside (since the body would most likely be unrecognizable). In case the visual check didn't satisfy his clients, Vallance suggested DNA testing.

"We're not asking for $1 million. We're asking for the cemetery to establish that her mother is buried in the plot she purchased," Vallance says. "It very well may be that they are not sure who is buried where. So they may have a substantial liability concern."

Since Fletcher isn't sure her mother is there, she doesn't want to dig up the grave herself because according to the Texas Health and Safety Code, desecrating a grave -- destroying or removing a body from a plot without permission -- is a third-degree felony. Even moving a gravestone or monument is a class C misdemeanor.

The cemetery's attorney says she is certain that the right body is in the right grave. "Ms. Fletcher's mother is buried exactly where she ought to be," Vorpahl says. "The cemetery confirmed that the person who is supposed to be in each space is in fact there. There is no error."

The cemetery agreed to disinter the body -- on the condition that if Fletcher's mother is indeed in the correct grave, Fletcher has to pay $900. "That's the low-end cost," Vorpahl says.

Dolores Gallegos celebrates holidays at the cemetery. Her grandmother was buried at Hollywood in 1940, and Gallegos grew up playing in the drainage ditch and spending special days with the dead. Her family owns ten plots there. According to a letter Gallegos wrote the funeral commission last spring, in October 2001 someone else was buried in the plot she bought for herself. She wrote that Olmos assured her that the trespassing corpse would be removed immediately. A couple of weeks later, Olmos asked that she meet with him, because the area had been remeasured and he said there were inaccuracies as to the space numbers.

Olmos wrote an e-mail to the funeral commission's investigator saying that "the platted map for this area is difficult to distinguish" and it was hard to tell if the deceased was buried in Gallegos's space or if she was buried in an available space that was between the plots Gallegos owned.

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