Sharon Hills cemetery spokesman responds to desecration charges

 

DOVER — A spokesman for the Pennsylvania-based company overseeing operations at Sharon Hills Memorial Park said Monday the four persons accused of misdemeanor desecration and conspiracy are innocent of the charges and the three employees in the case are still working at the cemetery.

Last week, Delaware State Police announced charges against Sharon Hills Memorial Park manager Ethel A. Melvin, 59, of Dover, and three others after investigation into a 77-year-old Dover resident’s claims that several brass urns were missing from his family’s burial site; authorities claimed the brass was later sold to a scrapyard.

Others charged during preliminary police investigation were Sharon Hills employees Shaughn A. Graves, 39, and Donald L. Melvin (Ms. Melvin’s son), 36, both of Camden-Wyoming, and Ms. Melvin’s daughter Lauri A. Larlham, 42, also of Camden-Wyoming and not an employee.

A media call to Sharon Hills Memorial Park on Monday requesting comment was referred to Delmarva Cemeteries Management Inc.

“I am just a worker and don’t have authorization to say anything,” said a Sharon Hills employee who answered the telephone.

Delmarva Cemeteries Management spokesman Louis Ottaviano said that he would not “discuss the specifics of the charges which are totally false.”

He said on Monday afternoon that those charged were not available for comment.

Also, Mr. Ottaviano said, police had not provided the West Chester area company any details of the charges.

Last week, police said they had contacted the representative of a Sharon Hills Trust, advising him of the incident. According to authorities, the Trust representative said he would conduct an internal investigation.

State police said they were not aware of Delmarva Cemeteries Management.

Mr. Ottaviano said the question regarding the work status of the charged employees was “a good one” and followed with:

“This isn’t a candy store. … We have commitments to honor and I need experienced people to do that. So at this point there have been no changes in staff, especially involving people who are completely innocent of any wrongdoing.

“They’re as devastated as the families are about all this …”

Police said brass urns were allegedly sold to a local scrap yard on April 24, May 4 and May 12.

Mr. Ottaviano described the alleged missing property in question as brass flower vases, not urns, for flowers, which in general often become broken and displaced from their site and are replaced with new ones by Sharon Hills staff as soon as possible.

The broken vases are stored and eventually sold as scrap, which is what Mr. Ottaviano said occurred in the recent sequence that police investigated and brought charges.

“At any given time we see broken vases throughout the memorial park,” Ottaviano said. “Sometimes they become displaced and a mower hits them and they become damaged in a number of ways.

“We replace them, but now we have damaged vases. What do we do with them?

“Over the years we collect this stuff and from time to time have taken it to scrapyards, which is what we’ve been doing for years.”

Mr. Ottaviano said gathered broken vases and brass scrolls are occasionally sold for what he described as “pennies.”

News spread quickly

As news of the allegations spread after a state police news release on Aug. 3, plot holders arrived to Sharon Hills the next day checking on the status of their property. Late last Tuesday afternoon, some onlookers alleged that similar issues had been ongoing for a year or two.

Mr. Ottaviano said he spent until 9 p.m. Tuesday night addressing the concerns of families.

“It’s a shame that there have been (problems) and I wish we could take this (suffering) away from the families and our staff,” he said.

“This is extremely hard on everyone associated with Sharon Hills, whether it be a family member of a loved one there or employees.”

Mr. Ottaviano attributed missing property to an 80-acre tract of land that’s open to the public and sees “thousands and thousands of visitors.” There are “thousands” of plots at Sharon Hills, and he said it’s possible that visitors could remove or shift property, along with “neighborhood kids” and other outsiders.

Delmarva Cemeteries Management has encouraged police to patrol the grounds, Mr. Ottaviano said, and Sharon Hills staff is “on the grounds all day long and come through on the weekend. There’s always someone there.”

An independent investigator will be hired to evaluate Sharon Hills’s “procedures,” Mr. Ottaviano said, and the company has started a survey “to see what families would like us to do with the broken vases, scrolls and abandoned markers.”

Also, the company is working with a manufacturer to make a plastic version to take away the monetary value of brass vases, Mr. Ottaviano said.

Mr. Ottaviano said a theft case in Sharon Hills was settled “a year or so ago” involving two persons who were ordered to pay restitution and “quite a large number of vases were taken in two sections.”

According to state police spokesman Sgt. Richard Bratz, “There was a case or incident in December of 2014 in which an arrest was made.”

According to Sgt. Bratz, more than 20 families had previously contacted authorities regarding their alleged interactions with Sharon Hills staff and concerns of missing urns and reported replacement charges.

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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