Lawsuit Accuses Cemetery of Preying on Korean Veterans

Times Staff Writer

For years, Oakdale Memorial Park in Glendora actively sought the business of Korean immigrants who fought with Americans in the Korean and Vietnam wars.

The cemetery distributed a glossy brochure showing watercolor sketches of three imposing stone markers and an incense burner that would serve as the gateway to a walled-off area dedicated to Korean veterans. It also bused in Korean veterans for tours. Hundreds bought plots there, the veterans said, on the promise of a Korean soldiers memorial and a special section of the park devoted to them.

But today, Oakdale has yet to build the memorial and as veterans are dying, workers are burying them in plots at the far end of the cemetery alongside non-veterans, not in the separate area veterans say they were promised.

In a suit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court on Wednesday, a group of 15 veterans and two relatives of deceased veterans, who primarily speak Korean, allege that a Korean-speaking representative of the park lied to them.

The suit charges that the pitch the Oakdale representative, Jin Heung Kim, gave the veterans in Korean is different from the English in the contracts. While Oakdale's salesman and materials spoke of a special memorial and burial site for the veterans, according to the lawsuit, the English-language contract makes no mention of them and does not specify that the veterans would all be laid to rest in one dedicated area.

Julie A. Su of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, a nonprofit group that helped the veterans file their suit, alleges that the cemetery took advantage of the fact that most of the buyers did not speak much English.

The suit comes amid a greater focus by authorities on possible fraud targeting Asians who do not speak English.

Last year, an Alhambra Toyota dealer settled a suit filed by Asian Pacific American Legal Center after Chinese-speaking customers said the English-language car contracts they signed were different than what the Chinese-speaking salesmen promised. That case also prompted a new state law requiring companies that do business in four Asian languages -- Chinese, Korean, Tagalog and Vietnamese -- to provide contracts written in those languages.

"It's just unfortunately very common because businesses see vulnerable communities and defraud them," Su said. "I think that oftentimes, with Asians, they're not expected to fight back, which adds a layer of vulnerability."

A spokesman for the Houston-based company that owns Oakdale, Service Corp. International, said the company was surprised by the suit.

"As far as I know, we've provided everything we've promised to the Korean War Veterans Assn.," said Terry Hemeyer, managing director of communications, referring to the local group that has been complaining about the cemetery situation.

"As recently as November, we got a letter from the Korean War Veterans of the U.S.A. that thanked us for what we're doing and looking forward to a long, beneficial relationship."

Hemeyer declined to comment further because he said the company has not yet had an opportunity to review the lawsuit and does not know anything about the alleged employee. Kim, identified in the lawsuit as the Oakdale representative, could not be reached for comment, and Hemeyer said he could not provide additional information about him.

Kun Sup Chang, an 82-year-old retired major in the South Korean air force who lives in Koreatown, said he hopes that filing a suit will help them get some answers.

"I am angry I've been ... fooled," said the man, who was wearing a baseball cap with an embroidered eagle and American flag. He spoke in Korean, through a translator.

About four years ago, Chang said, he and about 40 other Korean veterans were invited by Kim to attend a memorial service for veterans at Oakdale Memorial Park. The cemetery paid for a bus to bring them there, he said.

Chang said Kim told them about the prominent area that the park was planning for Korean veterans and their families, comparing the project to a national war veterans' memorial in South Korea.

Chang was impressed by the wide, flat lawn, the majestic oak trees and the prominent location by the front gates, which he figured would make it easy for his children and grandchildren to visit. On Sept. 25, 2002, Chang bought two plots at about $2,000 each.

He said he did not realize something was amiss until he went to the funeral of a friend, In Bae Kang, at the end of 2002.

Kang was not buried at the location Chang said they were promised, the Chapel Lawn. Instead Kang's plot was near the back, on the north side of the cemetery. It was in an area called Garden of Hibiscus, which one of the veterans' lawyers said had long been marketed toward the Korean community, not just veterans. (The hibiscus is South Korea's national flower and the area features a Korean-style pavilion.) None of the war memorial monuments Oakdale's brochures promised had been erected, nor had the low wall Chang said the cemetery promised to build to set the veterans' plot apart from others.

Chang said he asked about the change in locations, and an Oakdale employee told him the veterans would be relocated later, when more plots were sold. (He bought two more plots to try to accelerate the process.)

Chang also said he found out there was no guarantee for the veterans to be buried next to one another. He stopped making payments. When he went to his regular Korean veterans meetings, he found others had similar complaints. They sought out the Asian Pacific American Legal Center about a year ago. (They are also being represented by a private firm, Lim, Ruger & Kim, and the pro bono law office Public Counsel).

The complaint accuses Kim and Oakdale's parent company of defrauding the veterans, negligently misrepresenting and falsely advertising their services and violating laws designed to protect the elderly and consumers.

The veterans primarily want Oakdale to do what it promised and bury them and their families on the Chapel Lawn, said Su, of the legal center. The veterans are also suing for damages, but Su said they have not yet specified an amount.

On Wednesday, a sign advertising the "Korean War Veterans National Memorial Park in U.S.A." was still standing in a bed of geraniums by the cemetery's entrance. Chang shook his head.

When Chang visited his friend's grave Wednesday, he pointed to a line of brown pine needles and leaves that the recent rainstorm had carried about 15 feet onto the lawn. This was particularly frustrating because one of the appealing parts of the supposed veterans memorial plot was that it was on higher ground that was less susceptible to flooding.

"Koreans really value their burial place and it's a very bad thing if water floods or gathers in a burial place," Chang said.

"It's a Korean custom. If floods are soaking into the ground, the water just stays there. It's bad for future generations, bad luck. If you're buried in a dignified place, it helps the future generations."

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