At least 100 family members and supporters of people buried in Eternal Hills Cemetery gathered Wednesday night to seek answers from state legal and mortuary board experts about its years-long forced bankruptcy crisis.
The meeting, organized by the community cleanup group Eternal Hills Guardians, at the Klamath County Fairgrounds, addressed everything from history and status of the state’s forced bankruptcy case against the cemetery, to rodent control and weed management of the dilapidated grounds along Highway 39.
Senior Assistant Attorney General Carolyn Wade, a state bankruptcy lawyer working on the Eternal Hills case, told the crowd a May 16 conference to settle the dispute and transfer grounds ownership from current owner Robert Gordon to bank-appointed trustee Candace Amborn was unsuccessful.
The Oregon Department of Justice said a new settlement conference had yet to be scheduled, and could not give a timeline of when it would. If the next settlement attempt is not successful, a civil trial could be scheduled.
The cemetery’s fate has remained uncertain since Gordon lost his Oregon Cemetery Mortuary Board license to operate in 2016 following complaints of mishandled remains and failure to meet operating standards. The state filed involuntary bankruptcy against the cemetery in 2017 after Gordon failed to pay resulting fines.
Wade said this is the first time in history the DOJ has forced a company into bankruptcy.
It has since collected complaints and more than 250 claims for relief for $11 million from people who say they never received services they paid Gordon for.
Gordon has not maintained the cemetery grounds throughout the saga, causing gravesite sinkholes, an increasing rodent population and untamed grass to take over the property. Gordon previously claimed OCMB blocked access to a trust fund he used for upkeep, which OCMB denies.
Cleanup crews like Eternal Hills Guardians have taken matters into their own hands with planned tidying efforts at the site. Though this could be considered trespassing, Sheriff Chris Kaber said Wednesday he would not arrest anyone simply tending to their family’s gravesite, though deputies would respond to trespass calls to collect information.
“Our job isn’t to fix the problem, our job is to help do what we can to improve the situation,” Kaber said.
Kaber said his office has received 37 calls for service to Eternal Hills in the past two years.
Animal Control Officer Amanda Graham also spoke at the meeting to address concerns about welfare of fish in a koi pond on the property. Graham said her office is working with an aquarium expert to monitor the pond.
The Eternal Hills scenario is unprecedented in Oregon. Wade said there are state statutes to transfer a cemetery to a state receivership, but the facts of this case don’t fit those laws.
Just before Gordon lost his license in 2016, he transferred ownership of Eternal Hills cemetery lots to five different limited liability companies, also operated him. Wade said this further complicated the bankruptcy process.
Wade said complexities of the case made forcing the company into bankruptcy the state’s only recourse.
If a settlement is eventually reached, Wade said trustee Amborn can sell the grounds to interested community buyers. Amborn will also have access to $35,000 in interest funds from the cemetery endowment account for repairs and cleanup.
Wade specified the endowment fund could not itself be legally used for repairs.
OCMB Executive Director Chad Dresselhaus also addressed the group Wednesday. He stressed the unparalleled nature of the Eternal Hills disaster.
“These are loved ones that need to be honored,” Dresselhaus said. “We are here to be advocates for the community and support those who suffer.”
Kimberlee Underwood, a monitor of the Eternal Hills Guardians Facebook group, which has swelled to more than 600, said the group is looking to clean and honor the resting site of their loved ones until a peaceful legal resolution is made.
Underwood, who has seven relatives buried at Eternal Hills, said the group could shed light on a terrible situation.
“I do believe if we stay level-headed and work through this, everything seems much more possible,” she said.
Eternal Hills Guardians has planned a cleanup event of the cemetery for June 29.