Scan for grave sites at old cemetery doesn't put issue to rest

By Kevin Clerici, kclerici@VenturaCountyStar.com
April 16, 2006

A ground-penetrating scan of Cemetery Memorial Park in Ventura — in portions where graves have long been suspected but never proven — was supposed to put the dispute to rest.

Instead, the scan offered inconclusive evidence, further clouding the issue and sparking another volley of accusations and finger-pointing.

Using a ground-penetrating radar machine that looks like an oversized baby carriage, IST Laboratories of Ventura found no remaining evidence of graves or burial remains in major portions of the hillside park's western 110 feet. It's an area covered by a parking lot that pro-cemetery folks have long claimed is a decades-old Catholic burial site.

Acting on the IST Laboratories' information, Ventura parks officials declared the area grave-free, according to a memo sent to the City Council last month.

"All they found was a pipe," said Parks Supervisor Mike Montoya.

But in an interview, Richard Soto, president of IST Laboratories, said he's not so sure. The ground was unusually wet and made the scan difficult, he said. Intense ground movement in the soil there — as much as an inch a year — may have masked "voids" or disturbances in the soil the equipment can detect.

"There is no evidence of graves today," Soto said. "But that's not to say they (graves) were not once there.

"The contention that bodies were once buried there cannot be ruled out," he said, because the ground movement may have since filled pockets of air created by deterioration of the bodies and coffins the radar detects.

Graves most certainly exist under the parking lot, if you ask preservationist Steven Schleder of Ventura. Schleder and others are championing a campaign to return the popular hillside park to a fenced graveyard.

"This is just another botched attempt by the city to cover up the truth," said Schleder, who points to grave markings in a 1929 panoramic photo of the cemetery as proof of their existence.

Parks officials say they are not covering up anything. In fact, the radar scan was conducted precisely to clarify the matter, once and for all.

"The intent was to actually present facts," Parks Supervisor Jerry Revard said. "There has been so much disinformation coming from certain parties that we wanted to bring some science, rather than more rhetoric, to the discussion."

The city is not planning another scan, having already spent $5,400 on the first, Montoya said. Soto is not sure a second probe would help, given the soil conditions. The soil in the area slips so much, it caused structural damage to a recreation center at the site, leading to its demolition in 1972.

Meanwhile, the city is focusing on developing a "signature" memorial to commemorate some 3,000 people interred across the seven-acre property, which has functioned as a neighborhood park and cemetery for nearly 40 years since the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Los Angeles conveyed a final portion to the city. At the time, the cemetery was racked with financial problems and had fallen into weed-infested disrepair.

Last year, the City Council decided the park should remain a passive green space, despite impassioned pleas to reinstitute a fenced cemetery, headstones and all.

The new memorial will have a public art element, though its placement has yet to be decided, said Denise Sindelar, the city's public and visual art supervisor.

"The goal is to downsize the parking lot," she said, and to discourage use of an adjacent alleyway as a shortcut between Poli and Main streets.

Schleder vowed to keep close watch. He contends the dispute over the graves remains very much alive.

"It's disheartening what we are up against," he said.

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