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Cemetery Investigation Can’t Prove Fired Caretaker Committed Crimes

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After a weeklong investigation that prompted more grim tales of improper burials and other bizarre activities at the historic Wilmington Cemetery, authorities say they are still uncertain whether its recently fired caretaker committed any crimes.

“It’s all very confusing,” Los Angeles Police Detective Terry Kirkbride said Friday as he continued his investigation into allegations that the former caretaker, Joe Koosed, illegally resold plots, improperly buried caskets and otherwise shattered the sanctity of the 135-year-old cemetery.

Those allegations, denied by Koosed, surfaced last week as cemetery officials acknowledged that scores of caskets were either buried in graves that were too shallow or, in a handful of cases, put in the wrong locations at the eight-acre graveyard during Koosed’s three years as caretaker.

As of Friday, cemetery board Chairman Dade Albright said 28 caskets had been unearthed and reburied at the cemetery. At least 35 to 40 more grave sites will be opened in the coming weeks so that caskets can be properly buried. The cemetery contains 10,000 to 12,000 graves, including those of some Civil War veterans.

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In addition, Albright said, cemetery workers who unearthed the caskets discovered bones in the soil from what are believed to be old grave sites.

“I’m beginning to wonder if there is anything that didn’t happen there,” a shaken Albright said Friday. “I’m at the point where I’ll believe anything.”

Kirkbride, however, said his investigation and an interview with Koosed have thus far failed to provide any evidence of a crime. “I don’t know if there was any criminal wrongdoing, but I’ll continue the investigation,” Kirkbride said.

In the coming weeks, he plans to continue examining records at the cemetery and interviewing residents who have relatives buried there.

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The reburying of caskets began several weeks ago after the cemetery’s new caretaker discovered that one casket was buried in a grave so shallow that a flower holder could not be installed at the grave site. Since that discovery, cemetery officials and residents of the community have tried to properly identify grave sites and determine how the improper burials occurred.

Albright has placed the blame squarely on Koosed, who was fired Oct. 9 from his $90,000-a-year job. He was dismissed for allegedly poor performance and other improprieties, including living inside the tiny office of the cemetery at 605 E. O St., Albright said.

But as the stories of improper burials drew more local attention and the time span of their occurrence grew from weeks to possibly years, a growing number of Wilmington residents have demanded answers not only from Koosed but also from the community’s three-member cemetery board.

So far, the answers have been few.

At a Thursday night meeting of Wilmington Home Owners, a residents group, Albright asked the 40 people there to be patient as the cemetery board and new caretaker set out to identify and rebury caskets.

“I want to ask people to stay calm,” Albright said.

But as he left after declining to answer questions about the cemetery’s operations, Albright found himself cornered by residents furious about what has happened at the cemetery or frustrated by efforts to locate the caskets of their loved ones.

After one young couple told Albright that they have not been able to find the casket of their child, a tearful Sophie Alvarado, 58, and her daughter, Maria Meza, 25, confronted Albright with their horror stories.

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Her mother’s casket, Alvarado said, was supposed to have been buried two years ago atop the vault of her father but was instead placed above the vault of Alvarado’s husband. After stopping the funeral services to protest the mistake, Alvarado said, she and other family members were told that they would be charged an additional $500 to bury her mother’s casket in the proper grave.

Although Albright assured the women that the casket will be exhumed and properly buried, Alvarado and her daughter complained that the action should not have been necessary.

“If these people are going to take the cemetery on as their job, they should do it right,” said Alvarado, a lifelong Wilmington resident.

“If they didn’t like the job Mr. Koosed was doing,” Meza added, “why didn’t they do something sooner?

“It’s like something out of a horror story,” she said.

In the coming weeks, Meza said, she expects more residents to demand a detailed accounting of the cemetery board’s actions in recent years.

That demand, and the community’s frustration, are expected and understandable, Albright said Friday.

“Who else can they blame at this point?” he said.

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