by David DeMullé
It was 39 years ago this week that the heavens opened up and so did the graves at the Verdugo Hills’ Hills of Peace Cemetery — sending corpses and coffins tumbling down into residences as far away as Foothill Blvd. The cemetery had been used as a “paupers gravesite” by the county until their status was revoked for “deplorable conditions” at the site. The four-acre site had been under investigation by the state attorney general’s office for irregularities involving the cemetery’s upkeep and misuse of the maintenance trust fund.
The “Coroner of the Stars,” Thomas T. Noguchi, was on hand and voiced his concerns over his inability to get accurate information from the cemetery caretakers about how many bodies were displaced. He was also concerned about the potential health hazard posed by any unrecovered corpse of an individual that might have died of a communicable disease. But as the recovery efforts continued, he said that “the only dangers posed by those who died of natural causes was to the mental health of the community.”
The cemetery was owned by a nonprofit corporation headed by Lois Bishore, Kenton Bishore and Abbie Lohr, none of whom lived in the SunlandTujunga area. Noguchi voiced his frustration in an interview with the Los Angeles Times when he stated, “Cemeteries are like sacred cows, and I’ve had considerable difficulty in getting the necessary records to identify the recovered corpses.” He also said that the records he was given were more than 20 years old.
In 1975, the state attorney general’s office had begun an investigation after the county guardian sent in his letter of resignation calling out “deplorable conditions” which included unplaced markers and a “stench” from apparently improperly sealed crypts and sinking graves. The investigation was again resumed after a 17-year-old youth attending his great-grandparents graves discovered the cremated ashes of seven persons scattered on a trash heap.
The cemetery fell into disrepair and by 1976, locals were holding drinking parties on the grounds. Grave stones were pushed over and even the mausoleum was broken into and ashes scattered. Rumors of misuse of cemetery trust funds were rampant, and poorly kept records prevented identification of burial sites. Then on February 9, 1978, the rains began to fall and fall and fall, and the over-soaked land began to shift — sending a landslide of mud and bodies down the hillside. Eventually more than 55 bodies were found in home owners’ yards. For nearly a year, the road up to the cemetery was impassable.
In 1980, the Bishores resigned and they transferred the duties to Bonnie Mason who after a year or so disappeared without a trace. A new caretaker was appointed and moved his wife and seven children into an abandoned Aframe work shed on the property. Within the year, neighbors began to complain of the clothes and bedding being hung on the trees and graves, and in 1994, the new caretaker and his family were evicted.
A new group called “The Friends of The Hills of Peace Cemetery,” under the directorship of Mary Lou Pozzo and Kathleen Travers, took over the cemetery’s care. They petitioned the Los Angeles City Council to make the cemetery Historic Cultural Monument Number 946. The newly designated Hills of Peace Cemetery began to be restored, but as things go here in Sunland-Tujunga, rivalries formed and outside groups tried to take control of the cemetery and its $188,790 endowment fund. So much turmoil was created, that in 2014, Ms Pozzo up and quit giving the keys to Sgt. Herrold Egger of the LAPD and left the state.
The cemetery has since been maintained by Egger and some LAPD cadets and is available for guided tours as well as an annual historic reenactment by local residents and the Little Landers Historical Society.
We’ll see how much rain we have this month, and if anything will show up on our door steps.