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Ex-gravedigger: I saw 'bones flying all over'

He testifies that as he dug up a grave, he saw a ''skeleton breaking up'' at a South Florida cemetery that is being sued.

©Associated Press

August 29, 2002

He testifies that as he dug up a grave, he saw a "skeleton breaking up" at a South Florida cemetery that is being sued.

FORT LAUDERDALE -- A fired gravedigger testified Wednesday that human bones flew out of his backhoe bucket when he squeezed a new grave between old, crowded ones at a Palm Beach County cemetery. The cemetery is one of two being sued by 1,400 people.

Claude Etienne, a Haitian immigrant who worked at Menorah Gardens in Palm Beach County for three years, said the cracking of buried concrete vaults holding caskets was an everyday occurrence.

But he said his backhoe uncovered bones only a few times. He said the bones were taken to a pile used for fill dirt. Broward Circuit Judge J. Leonard Fleet is hearing evidence to determine whether families should be allowed to pursue their claims as a group in a class action lawsuit. No decision is expected before October.

Service Corporation International, the world's largest burial provider, is being sued as the owner of Menorah Gardens cemeteries in Palm Beach and Broward counties.

"In the process of digging up the grave, I saw somebody's skeleton breaking up and bones flying all over the place," Etienne testified. Dirt from the disturbed grave was taken to a wooded "dumping ground" and later was used "to fill other spots in the cemetery."

A second fired gravedigger testified that he remembered two to four cracked vaults in the year he worked at the Palm Beach County cemetery.

Etienne estimated that there were problems with hundreds of graves, possibly close to a thousand.

Outside court, SCI attorney Barry Davidson said he thought Etienne's testimony was exaggerated. He said a new review using radar determined that 200 graves had problems, mostly due to tight spacing.

"We have a different story to tell," Davidson said.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has determined that bones in the pile described by Etienne are human, and they are performing DNA tests to identify them.

Davidson said the company is cooperating with investigators.

The lawsuit accuses Menorah Gardens of jamming corpses together in marked and unmarked graves and removing bodies and gravestones to be able to keep selling plots.

SCI has denied any knowledge of grave desecrations, blaming former employees.

The Palm Beach cemetery opened in 1976 and was bought by Houston-based SCI in 1995.

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