Missing tombstone has story behind it

By Dennis McCarthy
LA Daily News
Updated: 07/27/2009
08:04:53 PM PDT

 The "Case of the Missing Tombstone" is starting to crack a little. We've got a few leads, but no suspects yet. As I wrote in Sunday's column, Woodland Hills businessman David Minas found a well preserved, 500-pound tombstone from more than 100 years ago near a dumpster at his Ventura Boulevard real estate development office about a month ago. It was for one "James Sutton - 1835-1907 - a pioneer." Minas was hoping if I wrote about it, maybe someone might recognize the name, and he could get the tombstone back to the Sutton family, if there is any. "The phone started ringing Sunday and hasn't stopped since," Minas said Monday, running down more the 60 leads he received. They ranged from the farfetched - a woman who was sure Sutton ran with the old Jesse James Gang in Texas - to the truth. He was a local guy. It turns out Sutton - an unmarried, pioneer landowner who lived in the unincorporated town of Saticoy, just east of the city of Ventura - was buried in a Ventura cemetery along with 3,000 other pioneers who settled in the coastal farming area in the 1800s. They were all laid to rest in a cemetery that isn't a cemetery anymore. It's a dog park. Yeah. And, no, I'm not kidding. The story goes that Ventura Cemetery Park, which opened in 1862 about a mile from the Mission San Buenaventura, and closed in 1944 when it ran out of space, had turned pretty seedy by the mid-1960s. Vandalism became a problem. The city fathers decided to turn the land into a memorial park. All the tombstones not claimed by family were removed in 1967. The bodies, they left behind. "They took most of the tombstones to Hall Canyon and dumped them, and took some others over to the park behind Surfer's Point," said Steve Schleder, a local restoration expert leading an effort to restore the three-plus acreage site back to it's roots as a historic pioneer, war veteran cemetery. For more information, go on line to the group's Web site, restorestmarys.org. St. Mary's Catholic Cemetery was part of the Ventura Park Cemetery in the late 1800s. Schleder says from time to time the old tombstones that were not destroyed turn up all over, including one tombstone in Carson City, Nevada that belongs to a Civil War veteran buried at the old Cemetery Park. In 1993, during heavy winter storms, the 91-year-old tombstone of a woman also buried at Cemetery Park was found in the submerged, water damaged parking lot off Surfer's Point. "It was returned to her family," Schleder said. "But we don't know if there's any Sutton family left." Phyllis Goodrich, a San Fernando Valley local family historian and researcher, deserves much of the credit for running down the background on Sutton. She went on a couple of paid Web sites to locate him through the California Death Index and the 1900 Census, which showed James Sutton, born in England, living in Saticoy in Ventura County. "It was incredible to read about the tombstones being thrown in a landfill, and the cemetery turned into a memorial park, then a dog park," Goodrich said. Recently, there has been some talk by city officials to put in head markers in the park for the 3,000 pioneers listed on the official death rolls as being buried there. As far as turning the dog park back into a cemetery, it's a longshot, most people believe. Dogs are pretty popular. "We're still pounding away, trying," Schleder said Monday. "It just isn't right, the thought that dogs are defecating on the pioneers of the West Coast like that." Meanwhile, Minas still doesn't know how Sutton's tombstone got to him, where it's been the last 42 years, or what he's going to do with it. One thing for sure. He can't take it back to the dog park.