ATLANTIC BEACH, Fla. – The News4Jax I-TEAM has now confirmed several graves are not deep enough at Beaches Memorial Park. The Atlantic Beach cemetery has been the center of our seven-month investigation amid more than 70 complaints reported to the I-TEAM. Those complaints accuse the former owner and manager of disgracing the dead.
Now we have discovered some vaults containing caskets buried at the property are sticking out of the ground and others are too shallow. Pictures show some of these vault lids exposed at the ground level.
Florida state statute requires all vaults at time of interment (burial), be buried deep enough so that at least 12 inches of topsoil covers the vault lid.
Using a pole that probes for vaults underground, we tested the depth of vaults buried at the Atlantic Beach cemetery.
We found three that are too shallow, between 3 and 5 inches deep. We also discovered three other graves mounded above ground level, an indication the vault is not completely under the ground.
Nearly every county in the state, barring religious exceptions, requires that a casket be placed within a concrete outer container, also known as a vault, at the time of interment. The container is a large concrete box with a lid that protects the casket and the cemetery grounds from cave-ins. The state statute requirement reduces the risk of rain water and insect contamination to human remains.
Cemeteries and funeral homes in the state of Florida are regulated by the Division of Funeral, Cemetery and Consumer Services, which assigns investigators to conduct yearly inspections. We were surprised none of the shallow graves was noted in the last five years of inspection reports -- especially since a local woman reported a problem with her sister's shallow grave five years ago.
Denise Wells filed that complaint with the state in 2011.
A year and a half after her sister, Barbara, was buried, she noticed an infestation of ants coming from the exposed vault.
She sent a picture with the complaint, which shows several inches of the vault lid protruding from the ground. She says she wanted someone from the state to inspect it and make sure it was corrected. That did not happen.
Wells told us a state inspector responded to her complaint by including a copy of a waiver she signed, when her sister died in May of 2010.
The I-TEAM has learned the former owner, Amanda Rayan and her husband, John, would require customers to sign waivers bypassing the 12-inch topsoil requirement.
We obtained a copy of Denise Wells' waiver, which reads in part, "Beaches Memorial Park will do everything within their power to meet or exceed the 12 inches of soil on top of the vault lid rule, water levels at times may make this requirement impossible or improbable."
Wells said she did not realize the waiver would mean her sister's casket would be buried so shallow that ants would get into it.
She said, "If they [state inspectors] had taken the time to come and look, they would have definitely, by standing there and seeing the vault out of the ground, they would have known that there was something wrong."
We asked a state spokesperson if the inspector examined Barbara Wells' vault after receiving the complaint.
Joel Brown told us in an email, "Not all complaints necessitate an in-person site inspection by an investigator provided the operator provides an explanation or remedy and/or the consumer is satisfied with the outcome."
He also told us that unless an inspector is present during the actual interment, there is no way for him or her to know if the shallow grave is the result of a violation committed by the cemetery or if the vault has shifted toward the surface over time.
According to state documents, Amanda Rayan placed more soil on top of Barbara Wells' vault and treated the soil for ants. She told the inspector, "The vault cannot be reset as the water table is high and will not go any further down as opposed to raising the ground around it."
The I-TEAM has examined dozens of state documents and has not found any evidence the state inspector assigned to Beaches Memorial Park investigated whether water levels would have prevented caskets/vaults from being buried according to state statute.
In all, we found 10 graves at the cemetery that are either too shallow or exposed.
The new owner of the cemetery told us he has not encountered any water level problems during any interments. Todd Ferreira says he is now working to rebury the shallow graves we discovered so that they meet the state-required 12 inches of topsoil. He told the I-TEAM water level has not been a problem.
Amanda Rayan was arrested in August on a charge of schemes to defraud and several counts of forgery. Her husband, John Rayan, faces several grand theft charges. Neither is facing any charges related to shallow graves.