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Dunedin cemetery owner faces lawsuits, complaints

DUNEDIN — In 2002, Charles Scalisi bought a troubled cemetery that state regulators had taken over the year before.

Scalisi promised to turn it around, starting with a new name — Eternal Rest Memories Park & Funeral Home.

"If anyone knows how to do it, I've proven it," said Scalisi, who had owned a Clearwater cemetery.

For a while, it seemed he had.

But over the past few years, lawsuits and complaints to regulators have started stacking up against Scalisi and Eternal Rest.

The cemetery is under review by the Board of Funeral, Cemetery and Consumer Services, which has found that there is substance to complaints of fraud, negligence and other violations.

One complaint stems from parents who said their infant son went missing and the cemetery plowed a path over his grave. A former groundskeeper backed up the story and said that for years he had unknowingly driven a backhoe atop the graves of children in a section called "Babyland."

Another complaint involves two families that say their mothers were buried in the same grave.

Other cemetery clients contend that Scalisi has taken days to return their phone calls after he has picked up their loved ones' bodies.

Still others have said Scalisi overcharged them or would not return their money after they decided to choose another funeral home.

Eternal Rest sits on 13 acres along Belcher Road in Dunedin. The grass is full near the entrance but grows sparse farther back along the property until it gives way to weeds and huge blotches of sandy dirt. Dozens of headstones lay stacked beside a Dumpster. Some are decades old, leftovers from the previous owner.

Before Scalisi bought the cemetery, it was named Abbey Parklawn Funeral Home & Memory Gardens.

Employees had accused the previous funeral director of stealing jewelry and clothes from bodies and leaving the cremated remains of 100 people in a garbage can that his orange tabby used as a litter box.

One employee was said to drink on the job; another collected gold teeth of the deceased. For a gravedigger, the cemetery employed a registered sex offender nicknamed "Necrophiliac."

In 2001, Pinellas County terminated Abbey Parklawn's $175,000-a-year contract to handle indigent funerals. The state took control.

Scalisi bought it the next year. He said he planned to grow a hedge around the perimeter and update the chapel.

In the past year, three lawsuits have been filed against Scalisi and the funeral home. A fourth is being prepared.

In addition, multiple complaints have been filed with the state Board of Funeral, Cemetery and Consumer Services.

"I would say that that's probably pretty uncommon," said John McQueen of Anderson-McQueen funeral home. "Let me put it this way: My cemetery has been in operation since 1895, and we've never had a lawsuit."

In addition to the complaints at the cemetery, Scalisi has been in trouble with the law several times in the past three years.

He has been arrested on charges of drunken driving, cocaine possession and leaving the scene of a crash.

In a recent brief interview at his home, Scalisi, 58, denied the allegations against him and the funeral home. They were being dismissed, he said, "as we speak."

"Anyone can sue anyone," he said. "Talk to my attorney."

• • •

The most recent lawsuit was filed by Terry and Kimberly Allen, who buried their 5-month-old son at the cemetery before Scalisi owned it. In 1999, their son died of complications from sleep apnea. When the family lived nearby, they visited regularly, but they later moved out of state.

In August, the Allens and their four children visited the cemetery. They searched for their son's headstone, but in its place they found a thick sheet of dirt and a muddy path, their suit states.

The family searched the pile of headstones stacked by the Dumpster. They scoured the cemetery for hours with Kip Drys­dale, the groundskeeper.

Drysdale searched all night and again the next morning.

He eventually found it by using a metal probe. The headstone, and several others in "Babyland," had been covered by about a foot of dirt, he said.

"We had been driving over five or six graves back there all this time," Drysdale said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times.

In addition to filing a suit, the Allens complained to the state.

In his response to the complaint, Scalisi said a nearby "pile of dirt had washed over some interments because of rains."

• • •

In 2007, Scalisi became one of the first locals to offer "green burials," in which bodies are not embalmed and are placed in pine boxes that eventually degrade.

Scalisi planned to bury bodies on top of each other. But two families that bought the arrangement said Scalisi never told them that.

Brothers Tom and Anthony Beltsios purchased the plan for their 67-year-old mother after she died in 2012. The brothers — one works in an auto shop, the other in a grocery store — decided on the green burial because at $3,014, it was cheaper than a traditional burial.

Months later, a friend told the brothers that his mother's body had been buried atop theirs. The brothers have since sued and filed complaints with the state.

The friend, Nicholas Karagiannis, also said Scalisi never told him about the stacked arrangement. He said he filed a complaint with the state and has a lawyer preparing a lawsuit.

To make things right, Karagiannis said, Scalisi offered to move his mother's body and bury his father for free when he died. Karagiannis agreed but wanted someone present to make sure the transfer was done correctly.

Not wanting to see it himself, Karagiannis asked Scalisi to allow the transfer to be witnessed by a state investigator and his church's priest, who would then bless the new grave.

Scalisi initially agreed but then moved the body without a witness, Karagiannis and the priest said.

"We had talked about potential dates and times, but I never heard back (from Scalisi)," said Father Michael Eaccarino.

Karagiannis said his mother has a new grave site, but he doubts she's really there.

"All I know is that my mom's body was removed and the remains must be scattered," Karagiannis said, "because that box decomposes."

Drysdale said he knows why Scalisi wouldn't want anyone to witnesses the transfer.

He said Scalisi often ordered him to smash in the pine boxes immediately after green burials, which would pre-empt having to fill in the graves when the boxes started to degrade. That would have been evident to anyone who witnessed him transfer a body from a green burial grave, Drysdale said.

Scalisi fired Drysdale in December after three years of employment because he "wasn't a good fit," Drysdale said.

As for the families not knowing about the shared plot, Scalisi's attorney, Howard Scholl, said they would have known had they read the contract.

The Times asked the director of a nonprofit industry watchdog organization to review the contract. The director, Joshua Slocum, didn't find anything that indicates a shared grave.

Scalisi has responded to the complaints filed with the state by saying problems could have occurred because of miscommunication or accident.

The Board of Funeral, Cemetery and Consumer Services could review the complaints against the cemetery within several weeks. Scalisi could have his license revoked.

Dunedin cemetery owner faces lawsuits, complaints 07/04/14 [Last modified: Friday, July 4, 2014 10:15pm]
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