JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - As many as 2,000 bodies have been buried at the site of an old roadway that was ripped up and not even covered with grass at the Restlawn Memorial Park on Ribault Scenic Drive on the Northside.
The new owner of the cemetery, Mark Riposta, said he's in the process of letting those families know that their loved ones were improperly buried.
He said the practice had been going on from 2007 until October 2013. Several families are upset that their relatives' final resting places were in disarray and now have to be disturbed.
They say it's despicable and is anything but the eternal care they wanted for their loved ones. It appears the old owners just needed more room and buried people wherever.
"He was a wonderful person. He was loved, got along with everybody, everybody loved him," said Charlene McCrimager, whose 24-year-old son Ronnie Washington was buried at Restlawn. "I'm sorry. It is very hard."
Washington was killed in August and it's still so tough for his mom to handle. She said she goes to his grave nearly every day but finds his headstone sitting on the ground, resting in dirt. It's just one of countless examples of what people say is a shoddy job by the previous owners.
There's a paved road that once went all the way around the cemetery but now stops at one point. It's clear that somebody ripped it out and buried more people where it used to be.
To make matters worse, there's not even grass over their graves, just sand.
That's not allowed, according to state laws and regulations. So Washington's body and so many more buried there will have to be exhumed and moved somewhere else.
"It is not right at all, because for them to say they have to put his body back up, it's like I'm reliving it all over again, for my son to have to be put somewhere else," McCrimager said.
Riposta, who took over a few months ago after the property went into foreclosure, said the past owners, Southside Christian Charities Inc., did not go by the book.
"Since Oct. 5, there has not been one person buried in the road, because the spaces are here," Riposta said.
He said someone took a backhoe and ripped the road up and put bodies in those spots. He said other families complained they couldn't find their loved ones' grave site. Other complaints included elderly people and those with disabilities who couldn't make it back to their relatives' graves because there was no longer a road.
"There is no precedent," Riposta said. "I have done this, like I mentioned to you, for 36 years. I've never seen this happen before. Never."
He said no matter how much time and money it takes, he's going to fix the problems.
"The costs that are involved are tremendous," Riposta said. "They are triple what I thought it was going to have been. So it's amazing. But at the end of the day, we are going to have a community that is comfortable bringing their loved ones to the cemetery and to Restlawn south."
Riposta showed more property he's bought nearby where he said he can bury people's loved ones the right way.
"They shouldn't be, 'I can't find this person, or they're buried in the road and I can't get to them,'" he said.
Restlawn workers have already started to exhume some of the uncertified graves, they said each with the family's approval. Now, they're reaching out to others whose loved ones need to be moved.
Riposta said he's paying for all the costs without asking for the families or taxpayers to chip in.
TC Roberts and other attorneys with the Law Offices of John Phillips are now helping several families look into the problems apparently caused by the past owners.
"I think there is some sort of wrongdoing here," Roberts said. "If they knew that they were putting bodies in a place that they shouldn't be, knowing that possibly they have to be exhumed and placed somewhere else, there is some wrong there, absolutely."
McCrimager isn't happy about the move but hopes some day soon her son's body will have a peaceful resting place.
"In a garden like the rest of it," she said. "I don't want to see my son in the road."
A state agency that regulates cemeteries and funeral homes is looking into the claims.
According to the state, the previous owner was a nonprofit that was not licensed by the state. Its status as a nonprofit did not require licensure. The new owner, however, is licensed.
As a licensed cemetery, the cemetery is subject to the laws and regulations as set forth in Chapter 497 and applicable rules; as would any other licensed cemetery in Florida, the state said.
Harold Rollinson said Southside Christian Charities owned the cemetery until October 2013, when it changed hands as part of a settlement between him and the owner before him. He said as a nonprofit organization, it didn't have to follow state code. He also said the families whose loved ones were buried in the road knew it was a former road.
Anthony Allen told Channel 4 on Friday the news that 2,000 bodies would have to be exhumed after the allegations of improper burial doesn't sit well with him.
"You'd expect them to have more dignity than just put people in the road," said Allen.
Allen said his mother was buried in the cemetery back in the 1980s, at that time he said Restlawn was a "nice resting place." Allen said his mother's grave is not one that is supposed to be exhumed, but that he's shocked at the current condition of the cemetery.
"My reaction was, 'Wow, I couldn't believe it,' for that to be a cemetery because there's a lot of dignified people buried out there, and it's just hard to believe," said Allen.
Allen said the cemetery is in such bad shape that he's not even able to drive to his mother's grave.
"The upkeep and then to deal with the road, I mean you can't even drive to the back to the cemetery. I had to park my car up front and walk all the way to the back of the cemetery," said Allen.
Now that Restlawn is back in the spotlight, Allen said he expects to see changes, but he said if changes are not made and the cemetery's condition does not improve, he'll start making plans to move his mother's resting spot.
"I was told by one of the reps the other day they're going to have some changes by March, and I told them I would be out there in March and see," said Allen. "If not, then I will take my loved one from out of there."
Riposta said he hopes to have all the exhumations complete within the next year or two.
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