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.

Juan Garcia's father, Juan Escabado, died in 1947 when Garcia was seven years old. There was never a marker or a headstone on his grave. Three years ago, when Garcia's mother died, Juan Garcia found his father's death certificate among her possessions and took it to Hollywood Cemetery intending to erect a headstone. He says the manager pulled a dusty book out of the back vault and found Juan Escabado's name on the yellowed pages -- but the man said he was too busy to take Garcia to the grave. "He didn't have no time," he says.

Whenever he visits his brother's grave he asks the office for help finding his father.

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.

"For three years I have gone back, and I still haven't found where he's at," says 68-year-old Garcia, who is active in the Texas Korean War Veterans Association. "They never showed me."

He's convinced that his father's grave has been resold to somebody else. Garcia canvasses the bayou, passing grassy graves and broken headstones, hoping to find his father. "I'm always looking," Garcia says.

Olmos insists that he doesn't know who Garcia is.

"There's lots of Juan Garcias in the city," Olmos says.

On an early April afternoon, Garcia once again took his father's death certificate to the cemetery office. He asked Olmos to help him find his father's grave. "He said he had to look it up and it would take some time," Garcia says.

Garcia says Olmos disappeared for 20 minutes. When he returned, Garcia says, Olmos told him there were five people named Juan Escabado buried in the cemetery. Olmos took him to the grave of Juan G. Escabado and stuck a temporary marker in the ground.

"My dad didn't have no middle initial," Garcia says. "I bet you there's nobody there."

A rainstorm washed away the granite government-issued stone marking the grave of Sally Tapia's father, World War II veteran Private Domingo Tapia. "We found his headstone about 25 or 30 feet from where it was supposed to have been," says the 57-year-old retired bail bondsman clerk. She doesn't think the cemetery put it back in the right place.

About a year ago, Tapia says, a 12-year-old boy was buried partially on top of her mother's grave. She says the child's parents made a sandbox memorial for their son that covered a third of her mother's grave. "We fought and fought and called the [cemetery office] and we never got any results," Tapia says.

Olmos says he doesn't know who Tapia is either. "The family has never approached us about a concern," he says.

Dolores Torres filed a lawsuit against Hollywood Cemetery in June, accusing its staff of moving her daughter's grave without her permission. According to the original petition filed in Tyler County, Torres's daughter Angela was buried at Hollywood 18 years before the cemetery exhumed the body and moved her to another grave. The suit accuses Hollywood of mishandling a corpse and exhuming and moving a body without prior notice or proper permission.

Hollywood Cemetery categorically denied every accusation. "We had authorization from another family member," Vorpahl says. Vorpahl says that according to notes in her file, the deceased's sister told someone in the cemetery office that she wanted her family's graves to be together. "We told the sister we would move her sister for free to another area where they could have contiguous plots, and she agreed to that," Vorpahl says.

The issue at hand, Vorpahl says, is whether the sister had the authority to make the decision. She says she doesn't know if the mother agreed to having her daughter moved or if she was informed prior to the move.

"I'm confident that the person at Hollywood Cemetery thought they were dealing with the right person," Vorpahl says. "Nobody's just going to go be a jerk and go move someone just to be mean and to cause a mother grief."

The case was settled last month by the cemetery's insurance carrier. Nancy Laha Clark, the attorney representing Hollywood's insurance company, said there is a confidentiality agreement regarding the settlement so she could not say if there was any truth to the allegations.

Joyce Regian's last wish was to be buried at her ex-husband's feet.

Her daughter, Wanda Dowlearn, bought three plots at Hollywood Cemetery. Because her mother weighed more than 400 pounds, she needed two plots for the oversized casket. She bought a third plot so she could be buried at her mother's feet.

The day after her mother's mid- October funeral, Dowlearn discovered that her mother wasn't buried in the plots she had purchased. Instead of being buried beneath her ex-husband's grave, Regian was buried catercorner.

"There's three fucking graves I bought, and they didn't get her in one of them," Dowlearn says.

She told cemetery officials to move her mother immediately before friends or relatives discovered that she had broken the last promise she made to her mother. Dowlearn says cemetery officials said they would be happy to move the flowers and the headstone -- that way no one would ever know.

She refused that offer, called HPD and filed a report.

Dowlearn says Olmos repeatedly acknowledged the cemetery's error and told her it had happened before. Olmos recently told her Houston attorney, Gary DeSerio, that he cannot move her mother to the plot the cemetery sold her because someone else was buried there in 1991. She can't keep her mother in the grave she is buried in because it belongs to the wife of the man buried at the foot of her mother's grave. (And, since there is already someone buried beneath her mother, now Wanda Dowlearn can't be buried at her mother's feet.)

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