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Archive for Thursday, November 23, 2006

Cemetery owners given more time to make their case

State wants full control turned over to Lawrence

November 23, 2006

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Conditions at Lawrence's Memorial Park Cemetery weren't as bad as what state prosecutors have made them out to be, an attorney for the owner of the cemetery said Wednesday.

That is yet to be determined, but Douglas County District Court Judge Robert Fairchild agreed to give the embattled owners of the cemetery, at 1517 E. 15th St., more time to make their case.

"We believe that an uglier picture has been painted by the prosecution than what actually existed," said Bern Weinand, a Kansas City, Mo., attorney representing Texas-based Mike W. Graham & Associates, the property's owner.

Fairchild on Wednesday refused to rule on a motion by prosecutors from the Kansas Attorney General's office to permanently turn over control of the cemetery to the city of Lawrence. Instead he wanted more facts of the case to be presented before ruling on that motion.

State prosecutors allege that the out-of-state cemetery owners have failed to adequately maintain and operate the cemetery as is required under state law. The city has been operating the cemetery under a court order since May 2005, but it does not have ownership of the property.

Bryan Brown, the deputy attorney general prosecuting the case, said he was still optimistic that ownership of the cemetery ultimately would be transferred to the city.

"It will happen one day," Brown said. "It is just a matter of the wheels of justice grinding it out now."

Frank Demby Jr., a Lawrence Parks and Recreation employee, operates a tree stump remover Wednesday in Memorial Park Cemetery. The city is planning to take over ownership of the cemetery on East 15th Street across from Oak Hill Cemetery. A judge has yet to rule on the ownership motion.

Frank Demby Jr., a Lawrence Parks and Recreation employee, operates a tree stump remover Wednesday in Memorial Park Cemetery. The city is planning to take over ownership of the cemetery on East 15th Street across from Oak Hill Cemetery. A judge has yet to rule on the ownership motion.

Brown said he hopes the judge may be in a position to rule on the ownership issue following a 20-day period in which the defendants are scheduled to present their responses to allegations that they improperly ran the cemetery.

Weinand also didn't rule out the possibility of the city eventually becoming the owner of the cemetery. He said he was uncertain whether Mike Graham & Associates still had a desire to own and operate the cemetery, but he said the defendants weren't willing to walk away from the property just yet.

"At this stage in the litigation, we're not willing to concede that point," Weinand said.

Much more than ownership of the property is at stake for the defendants. The state is seeking more than $1 million in damages from Mike Graham & Associates and many of its corporate officers.

City leaders are closely watching the case. City Manager David Corliss has estimated that maintaining the cemetery has cost the city about $10,000 per month. He also said the city is limited in its ability to offset those costs by selling burial plots because it doesn't have clear title to the land.

The cemetery has been under scrutiny since August 2004, when about two dozen patrons began complaining that tombstones were overgrown with weeds and maintenance of the property basically was nonexistent.

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