VC Reporter, Feature
On June 24, the Ventura County Grand Jury cleared the city of allegations that it had concealed public documents regarding Cemetery Memorial Park but, as writer Michel Cicero found while researching this story, for many, these issues are far from resolved.
On a recent June-gloomy Saturday, three 20-somethings armed with shovels and cameras gathered at the edge of a Ventura barranca where it’s been rumored that, some 30 years ago, city employees quietly dumped hundreds of valuable and historic tombstones into the dirt and brush.
That their pilgrimage had a Nancy Drew quality wasn’t lost on the trio as they prowled the perimeter of someone’s driveway to access the hillside, but knowledge of the very real issues comprising the Case of the Desecrated Graves would lend a sobering element to what they would soon discover.
The story, which has many beginnings and may never properly end, has garnered increasing public interest, thanks to the efforts of its chief protagonist (or antagonist, take your pick), Ventura resident Steve Schleder. The professional architecture restoration expert, historic preservationist and militant Catholic has spent untold hours and several thousand dollars attempting to right what he and others consider a mighty wrong: the city of Ventura’s removal of approximately 600 bought-and-paid-for grave markers and headstones of pioneer families and war heroes laid to rest in what is now officially referred to as Cemetery Memorial Park.
The cemetery was converted to a park in the mid-1960s, and the remains of approximately 3,000 people were left underneath the lush grass. The idea to convert the cemetery to a park was tossed around as early as 1938, but no significant action was taken until 1955, when the city purchased the western 110 feet from the Los Angeles Archdiocese to build a recreation center and parking lot. Later, the recreation center failed structurally and was eventually removed.
Looking back at City Council minutes from the mid-’60s, it appears that by 1964 the wheels of progress were turning at high speed with at least one new development per week approved by the city. The cemetery, which had by all accounts become unsightly, didn’t mesh with the growing city’s idea of modernity. Despite the fact that by law it was the city’s responsibility to maintain the cemetery, it was decided that a park would be a better use for the space, and plans for a conversion got the green light.
Sue Silver, state coordinator for California Saving Graves, state liaison of the State Cemetery and Funeral Bureau and State Office of Historic Preservation representative for Historic Cemeteries, told the VC Reporter via e-mail that it appears the cemetery was converted “under the guise of creating a pioneer memorial park” by way of California Health and Safety Code Sec. 8825 to 8829. According to Silver, that specific law has been used in many instances to convert cemeteries to parks; however, that was not the intention of the legislation. “California law is clear,” wrote Silver. “The land remains dedicated to cemetery purposes as long as the remains are still in the ground … To use a non-abandoned cemetery (where the remains still exist) as anything other than a cemetery is a violation of the law. Was then. Still is.”
Why there was a negligible outcry over the plan to remove all headstones, curbs, crypts and markers is anyone’s guess. It is possible that no one was paying attention and few were familiar with the law governing cemeteries. Nevertheless, hindsight is 20/20; and decades later, remaining descendants are joining with preservationists and veterans’ organizations to pressure the city into correcting this decision.
The Parks and Recreation Commission, the seven-person committee that assists the City Council in decisions affecting the future of all city parks, surveyed 1,500 nearby homes to determine what residents would like to see done there. They received approximately 500 responses, the majority of which indicated a desire for no change—though a significant percentage would like to see some sort of monument erected.
Problem is, there may be human remains beneath the parking lot. When the Catholic Church deeded the westernmost portion of what had been St. Mary’s Cemetery to the city for the recreation center, it claimed no one had ever been laid to rest there. However, there’s no accounting for the graves of numerous converted Chumash Indians believed to have been buried in the cemetery, and the edge of the grounds would be the likeliest place for their interment considering the Church’s hierarchal burial system; those considered most important were typically placed in the blessed center with the poor and marginalized pushed to the perimeter. Some have speculated that the statement no one was buried in the westernmost section of the cemetery could have actually translated to Native American Indians were buried there.
When Schleder lays a transparency of the cemetery’s plot plan, which he created from public records detailing the location of burial sites, over the top of an aerial photo of the park, he says that it clearly shows there were plots in the western 110-foot area. When the plot numbers are matched with city burial records, at least seven fall into the portion that is currently used as a parking lot. Perhaps more compelling is the plot plan used by engineers during construction of the recreation center. The plan does show graves in the western 110 feet but, curiously, the portion of the plan that includes the recreation center appears to have been cut away from the rest of the document.
Missing documents and anonymous witnesses are the norm for this story and, until recently, few have entered the public arena. From the construction workers who dug up bones during excavation prior to the construction of the recreation center, to the city employees who recall the sudden disappearance of important records, it seems everyone knows someone who witnessed or participated on some level in cemetery-related high jinks.
Recently, an elderly woman who wished to remain anonymous told Ventura County Star columnist Colleen Cason that sometime in the early 1970s, she watched in horror from her backyard as city workers dumped hundreds of assorted grave markers into a barranca. The event was traumatic for her and, to date, she refuses to go on record with her testimony for fear of retribution.
Pat Clark Doehner, a vocal supporter of cemetery restoration efforts, remembers when her cousin, Larry Rose, was taking a sculpture class at Ventura College in the early ’70s. Rose told her that students were directed to Hall Canyon, which runs perpendicular to the southeastern edge of Ventura High School, for free sculpture material. They were told, “There’s marble up in Hall Canyon, go get it,” she said. And they did. The marble she referred to was, of course, the discarded headstones.
The joke in Clark Doehner’s circle is that there’s no one she isn’t related to. A historian, Clark Doehner is currently writing a book about her ancestors, many of whom are buried in Cemetery Park. Clark Doehner says she was not contacted in 1964, when the city, according to current city officials, notified residents so they could retrieve family headstones.
Neither were other Clarks living in Ventura at the time. Over the years, she’s only met one person who actually was notified, and according to that person, a descendant of the Hall family for whom the canyon was named, families were given two weeks to take possession of the stones. “They were huge,” said Clark Doehner. “She didn’t know what to do so she just let it go.”
Huge indeed. And quite valuable. The curious three who recently traversed the barranca to investigate witness claims that hundreds of tombstones were dumped there can attest to that. Not only did they see a gargantuan granite stone with the inscription “Johnson,” previously discovered by Schleder, they also unearthed a second stone, bearing only the word “Leonard,” from the muddy terrain. To liberate the Johnson stone, which Schleder said he’s had appraised at $12,000, from the barranca and reunite it with its heirs—something Schleder fully intends to do—would require a truck and a winch. Schleder says he knows of at least 50 other families interested in reclaiming the headstones of their ancestors.
The issues surrounding Cemetery Park are garnering attention from media and preservation agencies outside Ventura County, which could spell trouble for a city promoting itself as a cultural destination.
In a letter to Ventura’s Parks and Recreation Department, San Buenaventura Conservancy President Cynthia Thompson urged the city to pay attention to possible legal and public relations ramifications. In light of what she called a “growing consortium” of highly respected professionals joining Schleder’s effort to restore the cemetery, Thompson warned that it is in the city’s best interest to “address the issue on a much larger scale in order to avert an extremely uncomfortable potential confrontation.”
In a letter from Sue Silver, published at www.restorestmarys.org, she wrote that the only way to convince Ventura and other cities to act quickly on this sort of issue is to sue “and get a court order to make them correct this gross violation of the public trust.” Former Rep. Robert J. Lagomarsino (R-Calif.), who has a relative buried at Cemetery Park, told city officials last year that he believes the city is responsible for rectifying the mistakes of its predecessors.
Ventura City Manager Rick Cole is quick to point out that it’s a multifaceted issue requiring thoughtful consideration and public process, yet he and other city officials seem to have missed one aspect entirely: cemeteries and parks are not interchangeable. “Personally, I think there’s a responsibility and opportunity to deal with the fact that we haven’t done a good job of being custodians of something more than a park, something more significant than a park, and I think we need to do that,” he said.
But, as Thompson stated in her letter to the city, “This is not a matter of returning the site to a cemetery, as it is legally a cemetery and may possibly not legally be authorized as a site for recreation.” Parks and Recreation Commissioner Mike Montoya stated publicly that “right or wrong in terms of the actions of those before us, it is a park now and people enjoy it very much.”
Sharon Troll, one of the commissioners who remains sympathetic to the restoration effort believes it serves a valid purpose as recreational space for the midtown area but wants to know what’s under that parking lot, even if it’s nothing but worms.
Cole said that while it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that there are indeed remains there, he’s unsure what purpose it would serve to find out immediately. “I don’t want to be obtuse here,” he said, “but if people who are now dead have had cars drive over them for 40 years, exactly where is it entirely clear that we have a responsibility to move the asphalt forthwith?”
With so many variables, the consensus is that a full restoration, as Schleder’s pushing for, is unlikely. There has been discussion of replacing the headstones with flush bronze markers, but at an estimated $250 each, the city simply can’t afford it. Most agree that a monument would suffice. Troll would like to see a reflecting pond as well. But Schleder says it’s not enough. “Putting a memorial there isn’t doing anything but giving the city an easy way out. It’s nothing more than a get-out-of-jail- or get-out-of-purgatory-free card,” he said.
Clark Doehner said she would be content with a monument but would also like to see a section of the cemetery used for returned headstones. “I’ve had so many people call and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got a headstone. Where can we turn it in?’” Clark Doehner’s great-grandmother saved for a full year to purchase a headstone that is now nowhere to be found.
Will the city be held legally responsible for the cemetery’s current state? Will the tombstones buried in Hall Canyon be retrieved? Will the remains of the city’s earliest denizens show up beneath the parking lot? As an exasperated Parks and Recreation Commissioner Suz Montgomery said at their last meeting, “It doesn’t look like it’s near the end. I think we need to, pardon the expression, do a little digging.”