After a lengthy investigation, the Louisiana Cemetery Board on Monday filed suit against the owners of a north Baton Rouge cemetery and its overseer, Lymus Washington, for operating without a license for the past eight years.
The state board, represented by the Attorney General’s Office, is also seeking to hold Washington in contempt for withholding subpoenaed documents. And, it is asking the court to set temporary operating rules for Gilbert Memorial Park until the state can find someone else, “a receiver,” to manage the rundown burial ground.
Washington said Monday that he thought he had given the state all information requested and said he didn’t know before being contacted by reporters that the state is suing him.
Washington, who said he is retired and lives off Social Security, said he doesn’t make any money on the cemetery and that the money he collects for burials is just for expenses.
“They can get me out of the picture. There’s nothing I’m doing,” he said. “The only thing I’m trying to do is to assist people with graves out there, and making sure (their loved ones) are put in the right place.”
Washington said he is seeking, but has yet to retain, an attorney to represent him.
Gilbert Memorial Park, 5560 Greenwell Springs Road, has operated as a cemetery for decades and has catered largely to black residents. Local civil rights leader Gus Young Jr. is among the people buried there.
According to the Louisiana Cemetery Board, Gilbert Memorial’s license to operate as a cemetery, last carried by defendant Stephanie Green, lapsed in 2003 and was never renewed.
Since then, the state accuses Washington of illegally operating a cemetery, including making arrangements, selling cemetery spaces, selling the opening and closing of graves, and collecting money for all of these activities.
“In the absence of a certificate of authority, such activity is illegal, carrying with it both criminal and civil penalties,” according the suit.
Relatives of people buried there have lodged many complaints with the state board, saying the grounds were so deplorable the families could not find the headstones of their loved ones.
Trash and debris have littered the area. Headstones have been sinking into the ground while mounds of dirt from recently dug graves went unleveled.
Together Baton Rouge, a group with more than 130 church and community leaders, is starting the process to find a receiver to operate the cemetery as well as a cleanup plan.
The group is making the announcement at noon Tuesday at St. Mary Baptist Church, 1252 N. Acadian Thruway, according to a news release.
The last clear owner of the cemetery property was Blanche Baranco, who died in 1963. Fifteen descendants of Baranco are named as defendants in the state’s suit.
Green is the daughter of Blanche’s daughter Dolores, who died in 1989, according to court papers.
Washington said he was married to Dolores Baranco and that’s how he became involved with the cemetery.
“The only reason I’m doing this is to keep it floating, and not let it get messed up,” Washington said.
In court papers, Assistant Attorney General Ryan Seidemann asks the court to issue a preliminary injunction preventing Washington from continuing to sell burial plots on the property, as well as to preserve and produce documents he’s already requested via subpoena. To that effect, Seidemann wants the court to issue a search warrant for any necessary documents.
The state found 313 newspaper obituary notices printed since the cemetery’s license lapsed in 2003.