Six months ago a group of teenagers went on a rampage in Pacific City Cemetery, knocking over headstones and snapping the tops off monuments. But that particular act of vandalism, says Jeff Palmore, owner of Bell Funeral Home, pales in comparison to the skullduggery he claims to have unearthed over the past year.
Now Palmore is suing the city of Pacific and its cemetery sexton, Alan Bruns, for $225 plus $15,000 in punitive damages. Among other things, Palmore accuses Bruns of overcharging for burials, selling people grave spaces they already own and digging up and disposing of dead bodies, all with the tacit approval of the city. In June, the two nearly came to blows during a funeral.
"He's a master of lies and deception," Palmore says of Bruns.
"I'm going to sue him for slander," Bruns says of Palmore.
The feud began in September 2007 when Bruns sold a space in Pacific City Cemetery to one of Palmore's clients. Bruns charged the family the standard $525 to dig the grave, plus a $60 city cemetery maintenance fee.
Palmore volunteered to dig the grave himself to save the family money, but Bruns stopped him. "Alan said there was a city ordinance that said only he could dig a grave," Palmore recounts. "I started looking around and learned that the sexton was the only one who could dig — not for $585, but $360."
Indeed, Pacific passed an ordinance in 2001 that set the maximum grave-digging fee at $360 for the city's two public cemeteries: Pacific City Cemetery and the traditionally black Resurrection Hill. By Palmore's reckoning, Bruns overcharged $225 for each of the 58 graves he dug in the public cemeteries between 2001 and 2007. As the funeral director, Palmore felt personally responsible.
"I was like the pickpocket," he says, "taking people's money and passing it off to the city and the sexton. It's a bad reflection on me."
Bruns denies that he cheated anyone deliberately. "I did not know about the ordinance," he says, "and that's God's honest truth. Everyone has to increase their prices. I didn't keep up with the city, and the city didn't keep up with me. That's not robbing anybody."
Palmore brought the discrepancy to the city's attention. "There were things in the ordinance that Mr. Palmore thought needed updating," recalls city administrator Harold Selby. "Some things hadn't been changed since the 1930s. We took some of Jeff's ideas and then looked at other cemeteries around the state to see what they were doing."
In February the city raised the grave-digging fee to $635 — $575 to Bruns and $60 to the city.
Still, Palmore wasn't satisfied. "They were overcharging," he insists. "They got caught and rectified the situation, not by refunding the money, but by doubling Bruns' salary. That's what troubles me."
Palmore decided he would take both the city and Bruns to small claims court on behalf of each of the 58 families he says were cheated. He decided to start with the most recent case, Marvel Mason Sr., who was buried in 2007 beside his wife Laura and their daughter Sandra Anderson.
Laura Mason wanted to be buried in the same plot as her grandmother, Nettie Brooks, who died in 1935. She purchased the grave spaces from Bruns, whose grandfather bought the plot in 1949. But when Palmore went back to look at the Resurrection Hill records, he saw that the plot owner was listed as Nettie Brooks.
Says Palmore: "Alan Bruns sold the Mason family grave lots they already owned!"
Bruns disputes the accusation. "There was no record of any purchase in 1935," he says. "It was Depression times. Nobody had any money. There was never proof of any deed besides the one issued to my grandfather, August Bruns, in 1949."
It's a wonder Bruns was able to connect the deed with that particular patch of grass at all. Very few graves in Resurrection Hill are marked, and another plot in a different section of the cemetery shares the same identification number as the Masons' plot: Both are No. 26.
Palmore found records of two babies also buried in a plot 26 in 1918. He reasons that August Bruns would not have bought a plot where people were already buried. Therefore, the babies would be buried in the same plot as Brooks. But then there wouldn't have been enough space for the three Masons.
By Palmore's logic, there can only be one answer to the puzzle: "Bruns dug up at least one baby."
"Jeff Palmore is trying to defame my character," Bruns angrily counters. "The babies were in the other plot 26. [Palmore] says I scattered their remains without any proof whatsoever. He's trying to make himself look like the great white knight and I'm Darth Vader."
"There's no mystery there," Selby agrees.
Tempers simmered for months. Finally, during a funeral last June at Pacific City Cemetery, the men's anger nearly boiled over. As Palmore led the funeral procession into the cemetery, Bruns asked him to move because the cars were blocking one of Pacific's main streets. At the same time, he also asked Palmore to sign an interment order form, as part of a new measure the city had taken to improve record-keeping.
Palmore was suspicious. "We had never had that in Pacific," he says. Palmore contends that Bruns' truck was blocking his hearse. "He wanted to trap me in the cemetery." When Palmore refused to sign the form, Bruns called Selby for backup.
"I'd been in the hospital that week for kidney stones," he explains. "I was in no mood or condition to put up with his crap."
Rather than dispatch a city official, Selby sent a police officer.
"The police officer was a peacekeeper," says Selby. "There had been a lot of" — he pauses to find the right word — "friction between Mr. Palmore and the whole Bruns family. If they were going to start fighting, I wanted someone there to break it up."
Palmore had signed the form by the time the police officer arrived. "When I left," says Bruns, "I flipped him the bird. I probably shouldn't have done that, but I'd had enough."
"It's harassment," Palmore fumes.
Palmore's suit against Bruns and the city of Pacific on behalf of Marvel Mason Sr. reached small claims court in July. The judge ruled that the city had sovereign immunity but that Bruns' company, R. H. Bruns Vault and Monument, owed Palmore $225. Bruns immediately appealed the decision to the circuit court. Palmore amended his suit to include the $15,000 in punitive damages.
"I intend to go for the jugular," he says.
A new court date has not been set.
"I've told Mr. Palmore the problem is that he should have been a lawyer," Selby says. "He's an in-your-face kind of guy."
"Jeff Palmore is the one harassing me," says Bruns. "He finds nitpicking little things and goes on and on and on." Bruns is the fourth generation in his family to serve as Pacific's cemetery sexton. "In all those years," he says, "no one has ever complained about anything done by the Bruns family in the city cemeteries — until now."