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LONG BEACH : Neglected Cemetery Gets New Owner

Sunnyside Cemetery, the historic Long Beach graveyard plagued by financial problems and months of neglect, has been sold for $100 to a Wilmington-based landscaper who said he will consider giving the site to the state or a nonprofit group.

“My goal is to turn the cemetery around,” said the new owner, Je-Rome Poland. “If (members of a nonprofit group) feel they can do that or if the state feels it can, I’m more than willing to let them try. If not, I’m going to move forward.”

Poland owns Down to Earth Maintenance, whose primary contract is with Wilmington Cemetery. He said that after he bought Sunnyside on June 7 he received dozens of angry phone calls from people who said the graveyard should be run by a nonprofit group.

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Poland bought the cemetery from Dean A. Dempsey, who is under investigation for allegedly using more than $500,000 from the cemetery’s endowment fund for personal expenses. Dempsey owned the graveyard for seven years.

At a special subcommittee meeting of the state Cemetery Board in Long Beach on Friday, Poland announced that he will give the site to a new nonprofit group, Friends of Sunnyside Cemetery, if it can produce a realistic plan to restore the 13-acre graveyard. The group consists of family members and friends of people buried there.

Raymond Giunta, executive director of the Cemetery Board, said the board will make recommendations about Sunnyside’s future July 28 at its next meeting, which has been moved from Eureka to Long Beach. Giunta said the board could either approve the nonprofit plan, recommend that the state take over the graveyard or suggest that Poland run it himself.

Melody Marshall, whose parents are buried at Sunnyside, led the effort to form a nonprofit corporation that could take control of the cemetery. She said the group has about 35 members.

The group must submit a preliminary management plan to state officials by June 24.

Sunnyside, the final resting place of some of Long Beach’s most prominent historical figures, was brought to state officials’ attention last month when they received complaints about the graveyard’s deteriorating condition.

Upon investigation, officials found that Dempsey had apparently used about $550,000 from the endowment fund to lease a Mercedes, pay for food and drinks at local bars and restaurants, make payments to his former wife and for other personal expenses, they said. The endowment fund’s balance, which once surpassed $1 million, was supposed to have remained intact, with the interest used for cemetery expenses, officials said.

Officials said they plan to seek felony charges of theft against Dempsey next month. Dempsey, who is battling lung cancer, has denied wrongdoing.

Although state officials have seized Sunnyside’s accounts, Giunta said the sale was allowed because state law does not permit the cemetery board to take possession of cemetery property.


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