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Family Gets $211,000 Over Cremation

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pascual Escoto wanted to be buried in Tijuana next to his wife’s grave.

Instead, the retired factory manager was mistakenly cremated by the Ventura County coroner’s office and his ashes dumped in a Westlake mass grave.

Earlier this week, a Ventura County Superior Court jury awarded Escoto’s three sons and three daughters $211,000 from the county because it failed to notify his relatives.

But for Escoto’s family, who have lived in the Fillmore area for 50 years, the damage award was small consolation.

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“How can I get over what happened?” his daughter Margarita Perez, 41, said Thursday. “These people made my father disappear like magicians. I know God took him, but the county treated him like a drifter.”

Perez said money was not what drove her to file suit. “They offered me a settlement to shut my mouth, but I rejected it because I wanted everybody to know what kind of people work for the county,” she said. “Fortunately, God guided our lawyer and we won.”

Escoto, 67, was carrying a telephone book in his back pocket with the names and numbers of relatives when he suffered a heart attack at a Fillmore gas station near his home. He was found dead, slumped on the gas station’s couch, on the night of Jan. 29, said Bruce Mayfield, Perez’s attorney.

Deputy Coroner James Wingate was found responsible by the jury, Mayfield said. According to court testimony, Wingate searched Escoto’s wallet but didn’t find the small telephone book inside, Mayfield said.

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Wingate visited Escoto’s former home in Santa Paula and retrieved Escoto’s medical records from Ventura County Memorial Hospital. But the coroner failed to notice Escoto’s current Fillmore address at the bottom of one of the medical forms. He also overlooked another form with the name of Escoto’s son, who was listed as his next-of-kin, Mayfield said.

And at least four relatives who live nearby were listed in the local phone book, he said.

Judy Giroux, Ventura County’s deputy public administrator, also was found responsible for failing to locate Escoto’s family before signing the cremation order. Giroux tried to find Escoto’s address in a 1985 Polk directory. Escoto’s relatives were listed, but the deceased was not, Mayfield said.

County officials said the award is covered by insurance.

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Escoto’s six children--Margarita, Yolanda, Rosa, Pascual Jr., Evaristo and Alfredo--were found to be partly responsible for not notifying police that their father was missing until 11 days after his death.

But Mayfield said he believed that the children were not at fault. “He was a very independent person and often took trips to San Diego and Tijuana to visit friends without giving notice,” he said.

County Coroner Dr. Warren F. Lovell apologized for the mistake.

“I think we could have done a better job and I’m sorry we didn’t,” he said. “In the past, we’ve done a remarkable job finding relatives of some people.”

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Wingate was thrown off track because Escoto’s driver’s license had an old address, Lovell said. “We have to do better,” he added.

But for Perez and her siblings, the money and the apology doesn’t mean much, she said.

“It doesn’t ease the anger,” Perez, who was born in Tijuana, said in Spanish.

“We wanted to give my father the Christian burial with all the honors he deserves. We wanted to know where he is so I could talk to him and pray for him. He always told us he wanted to be buried with our mother. They wanted to be together.”

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