By Raiza Giorgi
The removal of a bench from a gravesite at the Los Alamos Cemetery is turning into a legal battle between the family and the cemetery district’s board of directors after a recent board meeting ended in a shouting match.
The family of Concepcion “Concha” Carrillo is alleging that the bench placed next to their mother’s headstone was wrongfully removed in February, and the cemetery district is saying that the family was never allowed to place a bench there in the first place.
“The Carrillo family prefers to resolve this dispute amicably according to the wishes of the Los Alamos community to reinstall Mrs. Carrillo’s memorial bench, grandfather in the other existing benches, and draft a reasonable bench policy for future families and welcomes the opportunity to meet with the Board to do so,” according to the family’s attorney, Calisse Courtney.
After watching her mother deteriorate in five short months from the return of breast cancer, Brenda Carrillo Rivera and her family buried Concha at the Los Alamos Cemetery in 2016.
“The month we found out my mother’s breast cancer had returned and spread to her liver was the same month I found out I was pregnant. On the good days, I would walk her just outside our front door and sit with her on our porch bench. There we would talk about life, my baby, the future, and then sometimes we would just sit there in silence watching for hummingbirds,” Rivera said.
Her mother was well known in the education community as she worked for 25 years in special education for the Santa Barbara County Education Office. She worked with hundreds of special-needs students at various school around the county.
After Concha’s death, her husband, Alfredo Carrillo, drove to Zacatecas, Mexico, and brought back a special blessed headstone for his wife’s plot and a bench for his.
Rivera said when they placed her mother’s headstone and the bench, the cemetery’s rules didn’t specify that benches were not allowed or state what could or couldn’t be placed.
“I sat on this bench for the first time when I brought my six-week-old baby to her grandmother’s resting place. I sat on this bench the first time my daughter was old enough to bring her flowers,” Rivera said.
Carrillo would visit his wife’s grave every week and play guitar for her while sitting on the bench, which the family intended to be replaced by his headstone when the time comes.
In February, Carrillo showed up to play guitar for his wife and the bench was missing. He was concerned that it was stolen, so he started asking who was in charge of the cemetery.
The directors for the Los Alamos Cemetery District are Charlie Gonzales, Peter Kopcrak and Jim Gill. Gonzalez is the owner of the well-known restaurant “Charlie’s” in Los Alamos, and so Carrillo went to him to ask if he knew anything.
Gonzalez told Carrillo that the cemetery rules and regulations did not allow benches to be placed and it had been removed and is being stored. Rivera said her father came to her perplexed because he wasn’t given any notice of the bench rules, nor any notice that the bench was removed, or an opportunity to come get it.
She tried to get a hold of the board members to get more information, Rivera said, but no one responded to her inquiries for several months. A petition was started that has gathered more than 1,800 signatures from people urging the district to reinstall the bench.
“It makes no sense that benches can’t be put out there for families to sit and rest and talk with their loved ones. Concha was a dear friend and co-worker and I have sat on that bench many times and told her about the new kids at school or about what was going on in my life,” said Annette Herrera, one of the petitioners.
Rivera then went to 3rd District Supervisor Joan Hartmann asking why the bench was removed and if the ordinance could be amended.
Hartmann’s office told Rivera they spoke with the board and their reason for removing the bench was an ordinance passed in 2006 that states that benches do not fall in the category of “acceptable.”
The Star has made a public records request for a copy of the 2006 ordinance from the cemetery district, but officials have yet to make it available. The cemetery does not have a website or any documentation online.
The documentation the Star received was a copy of the July 2018 rules and regulations, and board minutes from 2018 and the beginning of 2019. The rules in July of last year make no mention of not allowing benches to be placed, and the board minutes from March 2018 mention updating the rules and regulations to adopt the “no benches” policy.
Rivera was told to go to the cemetery board meeting on May 20 to discuss the issue, so her family showed up. They were met with a resounding “no” from the board members to amend the ordinance.
“I wouldn’t even allow my own brother to put a bench against the fence. We don’t allow benches. We made an ordinance in 2006,” said Gonzalez, one of the board members.
Another family friend asked to place one near their family’s gravesite and they were turned down as well, Gonzalez added.
“The Donlon family also didn’t know about the ordinance. We didn’t get it to them … and it got put up,” Gonzalez said.
“This isn’t a park, it’s a cemetery. There’s a park down the street with a bunch of benches. We don’t care if people come up with their lawn chairs, blankets, and come sit with their families,” Gonzalez added.
The other big issue is that people want to plant trees to honor their loved ones, which the cemetery doesn’t allow because the roots pull up headstones, Gonzalez added.
“That man right there,” Gonzalez said, pointing to Carrillo, before being interrupted by Carrillo’s son, who was upset.
“I tried to communicate with Mr. Carrillo to come to the meetings,” Gonzalez said.
Carrillo’s son asked why no one talked to the family before the removal of the bench.
“We are volunteers. We don’t get paid for any of this. The little bench over there (pointing to a small concrete bench under a tree) is for Scott Williams, who was a guard at the federal prison, and he was killed in the federal prison. The guards asked to put a bench next to the tree next to his grave so their little girls could sit. That’s why that bench is there, and it will stay,” Gonzalez said.
The family noted that they installed their bench in 2016 and asked why no communication was made by letter or a phone call about the bench in the more than two years it was there.
Gonzalez said he had never noticed the Carrillos’ bench before. Kopcrak said the bench had fallen over and they were concerned it would pose a risk of liability. Kopcrak said he then took the bench and contacted the groundskeeper, but didn’t contact the family.
Koprak also said that benches are to be removed to save time and effort for maintenance.
“The bench sits on a cement platform and requires little to no maintenance,” said Erica Flores, a friend of the Carrillo family.
“It’s a small town. You could have found us easily to notify us,” said Concha’s other daughter Kourey Mendek.
Gonzalez then interrupted, saying if he would have known the bench was there to begin with, he would have looked into it being removed.
“In three years you mean to tell me you’ve never seen the bench? I find that hard to believe,” said Mendek.
The Donlan family said their bench was put in in 2017 and cemented in, and they were never notified of any of the rules and regulations. The Donlons will turn their bench into a planter and are disappointed with how the board is handling this situation, according to Kerry Donlon.
When the Carrillos asked if they could turn their bench into a planter, Kopcrak said no because it was in three pieces.
Gonzalez said that several other local cemeteries do not allow benches either, but Oak Hill Cemetery in Ballard, for example, does allow benches allowed in certain sections.
“Obviously we should have taken better steps communication-wise (but) we are volunteers. Maybe we need to get board approval before people put their headstones or memorials in,” Gill said.
The meeting ended in a shouting match between the Gonzalez, Kopcrak and the Carrillo family, and the board said it would not amend its ordinance.
“The Carrillo family is exploring all options with their lawyer, which may include calling on the appointment of new board members at the expiration of the existing board members’ terms, and filing a complaint with the Grand Jury against the board for violations of the Public Cemetery District Law, Brown Act, and emotional distress damages,” Courtney said.