Rest in Peace is more of a suggestion than reality at the Tulare Public Cemetery District. After a first round of board resignations and longtime employee departures in September of 2017, a second round of resignations has hit the district.
Two newly appointed trustees have resigned, employees have been fired, and one more case of a misplaced body has surfaced.
High Turnover of Directors
Phil Deal and Vicki Gilson were appointed to the Tulare Public Cemetery District Board early in 2017. From the beginning, they complained that every vote was split 3-2, with longtime board members voting against the new members when they tried to make changes for the better.
After the Voice reported in September on problems concerning rude employees, lack of grounds maintenance, burial mix-ups, and mismanagement of district money, three longtime cemetery employees quit and two board member resigned, Trustees Patty
Colson and Phil Vandegrift .
A third longtime board member, Antonia Chavez, had resigned two months prior after a very contentious July board meeting.
Bill Postlewaite, Richard Johnson, and Alberto Aguilar were appointed to replace them.
The fresh faces apparently did not mean an end to the cemetery’s problems.
Trustee Deal is currently debating whether or not to resign, though individuals in the district have asked him to stay. He said that the current board ousted him as chair and does not adequately publicize the meetings. He said he hears of special meetings the night before they happen and then doesn’t even know what is on the agenda.
“Many times I only hear about what is going with the district second hand or from the employees,” said Deal.
Trustees Johnson and Postlewaite resigned in December after a dispute over Stay Green, the grounds maintenance company, and a possible Brown Act violation.
Problems with Johnson and Postlewaite started at the November 22 cemetery district meeting. Aguilar reported that Stay Green broke water lines, chipped grave markers, ran over a tree, and broke a bench in front of the office.
“They ran into it with the lawn mower. How do you do that?” he said.
Stay Green cost the public cemetery $19,000 a month for maintenance, in addition to extra charges for incidental costs to the tune of $3000 to $5000 a month.
One such incidental cost was the replanting of the tree they ran over. That’s when Aguilar decided to bring the subject of canceling their contract to the board’s November meeting.
During the meeting, the board reviewed Stay Green’s performance and voted 4-1 to terminate the contract with Deal voting no.
According to Aguilar, Trustees Postlewaite and Johnson then met with members of Caring Cause, a facebook group formed to help the cemetery. They thought it was premature to cancel the contract because the district did not have a backup plan. Postlewaite, in response, allegedly called Stay Green and told the manager not to accept the certified letter and to send it back to the cemetery without opening it.
Had the company opened the letter, their contract would have been terminated on December 31, 2017.
Aguilar discovered what had happened and put the incident on the December 6 agenda. At the meeting Aguilar explained that one board member can’t undermine decisions made by the board.
Aguilar said he would be seeking legal counsel.
On hearing that he might be facing legal problems, Postlewaite resigned at the meeting. Johnson, who did not attend the December meeting, resigned soon after, leaving only two members on the board.
Tulare County Supervisor Pete Vander Poel quickly appointed Carlene Ringuis so the cemetery board would have a quorum at their next regular January meeting. Ringuis had been putting in 20 to 25 hours of volunteer time to run the district office after manager Marilyn Correia surreptitiously quit.
Xavier Avila, who currently sits on the Tulare Regional Hospital Board, has applied for the other seat and might be appointed to the Tulare Public Cemetery District board in February.
At a special meeting in January, Stay Green’s contract was terminated and the board is looking to buy the necessary equipment and maintain the grounds themselves.
Aguilar asks the Tulare County District Attorney to Investigate Embezzlement
On October 5, 2017 Aguilar asked the Tulare County District Attorney to investigate possible embezzlement of Tulare Public Cemetery funds by former office manager Marilyn Correia and Steven Cunningham, who are married.
After receiving blistering criticism from the public and board members on mismanagement of the cemetery, Correia and Cunningham quietly planned their exit. During the first two weeks of September the board members, public and the Voice were told that Correia and Cunningham were down south visiting their grandchildren. On September 15, Gilson and Deal heard from the grounds maintenance workers that Correia and Cunningham had left their employment with the district.
After realizing that the management team was gone, Deal and Gilson met at the cemetery district office on Kern Street early in the morning on September 18 to assess the situation. A physical altercation with grounds foreman Phil Miller ensued when Miller tried to prevent them from entering the office. Gilson called the police and they were finally successful in gaining entrance.
According to a report written by Gilson, after reviewing the books, they discovered that payroll supporting records such as all employee time cards, sick leave and vacation accrual information, and three payroll checks for 10/1/17 were missing. When stop payments were ordered on the three checks two additional checks were found by the Auditor’s Office.
All five of them had been cashed except for Geraldo Ramos’. Correia and Cunningham had cashed the other four.
According to Gilson’s write up on the possible embezzlement, “An outside technical firm later determined that financial files on the laptop computer that Marilyn had used had been deleted, and that two flash drives that had been utilized had been cleared.”
After a request by county council to return all cemetery property, Correia returned the vacation and sick leave records to the district office. After Gilson reviewed the records she discovered that, “Marilyn had updated her records, as well as Steve’s, and submitted requests to the Auditor’s Office utilizing a falsified and fraudulent disbursement form for the final payroll checks.”
On December 15, 2017 the Tulare cemetery district received a letter from the TCDA office informing them that the DA was not going to conduct an investigation into possible embezzling.
“After an investigation into the matter concerning Marilyn Louis Correia and the Tulare cemetery, our office has concluded that no criminal activity can be proved based on the witness interviews and evidence provided, therefore, our investigation is closed.”
According to Aguilar, none of the cemetery employees or board members were interviewed.
More Embezzlement Allegations
Aguilar also suspects Correia and Cunningham of receiving money under the table in the form of rent.
Tulare Public Cemetery consists of two sections, the older section on Kern Street and the North Cemetery on J Street. During the last two years visitors to the North Cemetery noticed one of the gates always open and that it appears someone was living in the shed.
The issue was addressed at several district board meetings.
The suspected person was head grounds keeper for the North Cemetery, Ramos, who Correia admitted was very reluctant to fire after many serious infractions.
In an interview with the Voice on August 29, 2017 Correia stated that Ramos did not live at the North Cemetery. She also said that Ramos was informed that if the office management continued to receive complaints that he was rude, or misplaced another body, there would be consequences.
Correia expressed fear that if Ramos, a 30-year employee, were fired he could sue the district.
Aguilar, who was sworn in as a Trustee on September 19, met with Ramos at the district office soon after to resolve the issue.
Ramos told Aguilar, “I just want you to know that rumors I have lived there (North Cemetery) are not true.”
Ramos then asked Aguilar, “Can you help me move my stuff?”
Aguilar helped Ramos move his furniture, a washing machine and his cable TV box, and witnessed a hole in the ceiling where wires led to the dish.
When Aguilar asked the grounds keepers about Ramos, they informed him that Ramos had been living in the shed for eight years. They told him Ramos had a dog, dog house, garden, and had moved in an undocumented friend or relative, Abraham, who worked for a short time for the district. When the board found out Abraham wasn’t documented they let him go.
“There is no way the old board did not know he lived there,” said Aguilar.
Three Guests Buried in the Wrong Plot and Counting
Three loved ones, and possibly more, were buried in the wrong grave at Tulare Public Cemetery in 2017. According to the comments on Caring Cause’s Facebook page, this problem has been going on for years.
In April of 2016 Mathew Renteria’s father was buried in the wrong plot. They knew immediately because they had bought a large grave but his casket didn’t fit. The grounds keepers dropped the casket several times and then shoved it in, damaging the casket.
On April 5 Janice Ojeda passed away and Mary Lou, her daughter, chose a location three spaces from a large tree so there would be shade. Mary Lou knew immediately it was the wrong grave when she arrived at the cemetery because the plot was in the opposite location from what they had chosen and directly in the sun.
Trenity Monsibais was 14 years old and passed away in March, 2017 after a five-year battle with leukemia. Her family first became suspicious that someone else was buried in Trenity’s spot when they noticed the mementos they left were gone. Then in November Trenity’s mother, Alicia Monsibais, visited her daughter’s grave and saw Veterans’ memorabilia and happy birthday balloons, but it wasn’t her daughter’s birthday.
A grounds keeper recently admitted that, after Monsibais family left the cemetery, they moved Trenity’s casket to another plot three spaces over. Ramos had mistakenly dug grave #54 that belonged to someone else.
Alicia Monsibais was devastated to discover that for the last year she was grieving over someone else’s father’s grave.
Different faces, same lack of compassion.
When the cemetery office was first advised about Trenity, Gilson told the mother she would have to provide proof. After Monsibais provided the office with photos Gilson said she would get back to her, but did not return Monsibais phone calls.
Finally Monsibais and other family members came to the January 17 board meeting to complain about Trenity’s grave and the lack of compassion.
A few days later Monsibais received a call from Gilson informing her that her daughter’s grave was going to be dug up on Wednesday, January 24, and asked if she wanted to be there. Gilson also told the mother she would have to call Monday to find out what time.
Distraught over the lack of communication, lack of compassion and not asking permission first, Monsibais husband immediately went down to the cemetery office and told Gilson that under no circumstances is she to communicate his wife again.
Aguilar took over the investigation and resolved the issue.
The other two families got little to no sympathy from the former administration. Renteria’s family never received an apology from the district about putting his father in the wrong grave but instead said Correia blamed everything Ramos’ health problems.
“We weren’t in a drive through buying fast food. We expected some compassion,” said the cousin.
Mary Lou Ojeda said the maintenance man insisted that she was mistaken about her mother’s grave and that she and her family chose the plot that was currently open. Ojeda said the man was so rude she felt sick to her stomach.
After many phone calls, letters and board meetings, the cemetery agreed to give Ojeda a full refund of $3000.
Ojeda at first considered not fighting, but then just wanted her money back because she wanted to make sure this didn’t happen to another family.
“It’s just an experience that I would not want to happen to anyone else.”