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156 Caskets Reburied in Cemetery : Wilmington: Police suspend their investigation of improper graves to allow for proper disposal of remains.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It took five weeks, but Eric and Anna Velazquez finally found the casket of their infant son, Michael, at Wilmington Cemetery.

In a small patch where six children had been buried, the Velazquezes identified Michael’s casket Friday morning by the stuffed animal--a Dalmatian--placed inside by his uncle.

After closing the casket, Anna used her finger to write her son’s name--Michael Joseph Velazquez--atop the dusty lid. And next to his name, she drew a small heart.

The grim scene was typical of those replayed for weeks at the 135-year-old Wilmington Cemetery, where officials last month discovered that scores of caskets had been improperly buried. Cemetery officials have blamed a former caretaker, who was fired on Oct. 9 after three years on the job. The caretaker, Joe Koosed, has denied any wrongdoing and says the cemetery’s old and ill-kept records are at fault.

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Amid the continuing discoveries at the cemetery, Detective Terry Kirkbride of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Harbor Division said Friday that his investigation of the improper burials has been temporarily suspended to allow cemetery officials to focus on reburying caskets and attending to grieving families.

“They wanted to take care of the relatives first. They felt that was much more important. And I agreed with them,” said Kirkbride, who said his investigation probably would resume within two weeks.

Kirkbride plans to review the cemetery’s records of burials and sales of grave sites to determine whether any charges may be filed against Koosed. When the inquiry resumes, Kirkbride said he expects to spend two weeks reviewing records before determining possible criminal misconduct.

At last count, according to cemetery officials, 156 caskets have been unearthed and reburied because they were resting only inches below the ground or, in some cases, were not located in their proper plots. An additional 22 caskets must still be reburied.

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“I didn’t think it was going to get to this,” a shaken Cemetery Board Chairman Dade Albright said Friday as he walked the cemetery’s grounds. “It (the number of improper burials) is much larger than anything I could have imagined.”

The problem of improper burials has been so large that Albright has had to repeatedly revise his estimate of when the work would be completed. His latest guess: sometime this week.

In the meantime, the cemetery’s new caretaker has been working from dawn to dusk for weeks, directing a dozen men hired to help dig up caskets to determine if they were properly buried. Using backhoes and shovels, the workers have in most cases encountered only sloppy work at the cemetery, with caskets buried in shallow plots or not located where they should have been.

But in a few instances, the new caretaker and others have made macabre discoveries. On Friday, for example, they found that several caskets had been buried without concrete liners or vaults. And in one case, that left the remains of a 5-year-old boy, buried two years ago, covered only by a small sheet of gauze when the grave was unearthed.

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“It’s disgusting. I don’t know how anybody could have done this,” said the cemetery’s new caretaker, Jerome, who has declined to use his last name for fear that distraught relatives will blame him for the improper burials.

“It hurts. It hurts deep” to find the improper burials, the caretaker said, as he and other cemetery workers set out to build a concrete vault for the boy’s casket.

Meanwhile, the cemetery remains a place of more grief than usual as families gather every day to watch and wait for caskets to be properly buried.

“I hope this is the last time we have to come here,” Jeannie Vigil said Friday, as she and her husband, Pete, awaited word that his mother--like their stillborn son--had finally been properly buried.

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“I just don’t think I can go through this any more,” she said.


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