The attorney for St. Mary’s Historical Cemetery Association, Craig Albert, rested his case Wednesday in the civil lawsuit between the association and Creek Land and Cattle over alleged desecration of the cemetery grounds.
The lawsuit brought by the cemetery association entered into its fourth day in the 40th Judicial District Court. The cemetery association is seeking a declaratory judgment of $161,000, which the judge will determine, and is also seeking damage claims for negligence, to be determined by the jury.
The association is seeking compensation from Creek Land and Cattle for damage they claim Dance's employees did to the cemetery in March 2012, where many of the association members' family members are buried. Elmerine Bell, one of the association's members, told the court in previous testimony she first viewed the damage on March 24, 2012.
Dance was called to the witness stand to testify about the work his company did on cemetery grounds and to provide a timeline of events. Before work began on the property, Dance inspected the property and it looked “totally abandoned” with grass that was knee high and a falling down barbwire fence.
“My intent from the get-go was to do something good for the community. The barbwire fence was old. If we tried to re-stretch it would have broken and would have been futile to repair,” Dance said. “I was not trying to be disrespectful to the people who are interred there. All cemeteries are important. Our intent was to do something good.”
Dance told the court that former Daily Light reporter Melissa Cade notified him about the condition of the property on March 25, 2012 when she called his office. Dance said he drove out to the property the following morning and found tread marks made by heavy equipment through the cemetery.
Dance testified on Tuesday that he told Charlie Burton, who was heading up the project for him, not to go into the cemetery and not to disturb graves or the foliage. But Burton did not follow his instructions, Dance said.
Photographs of the cemetery before the work were presented to the jury showing headstones near or in heavy foliage on the property.
When Dance arrived at the cemetery, he said he saw tread marks up near some of the monuments but no damage was done to the monuments. He added that there were no tracks near the heavy concentration of monuments on the property. Dance said there are no tread marks present on the property today. Work crews later smoothed them out.
Dance said the photos submitted to the court that show the property very bare of grass is misleading.
“There was a small amount of grass that was damaged. In the areas where the underbrush was, the sun could not penetrate,” Dance said. “So there were bare spots but that was not due to equipment. I did agree to reseed it with grass seed.”
Adam Sanderson, one of Dance’s attorneys, asked Dance who determined where the fence would be placed on the property. Dance told the court that decision was made by a person with the Ellis County Sheriff’s Office who had staked out a plumb line. The southern border of the fence was determined by pipe fence that was currently in place and the western border was determine by the remains of the barbed wire fence. On the northern part of the property, which borders a road, there was no fencing in place.
“They (ECSO) thought it would be a good idea to add fencing along that road due to traffic,” Dance said.
Allegations have been made by the cemetery association that Dance constructed a road, installed fence posts and is farming over unmarked graves. They also say tombstones were found missing after the tire tracks appeared.
Dance has stated throughout the trial the road was pre-existing.
Sanderson asked Dance if he was made aware of burials west of the fence line. Dance said no, but stated that Bell indicated that there were some graves possibly under the road.
Sanderson then asked Dance if Bell had ever mentioned if Dance were to move the fence he installed on the northern part of the property by a foot, the matter would have been settled.
“Never. Not until I heard it in court,” Dance said.
Under cross-examination Albert asked Dance if there were any signs of graves near the road. Dance said there was one marker, but no indications of other graves. He added that the grave was left undisturbed. Albert asked Dance if he checked with descendants of people who are buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery before doing work out there. Dance said he didn’t check with them.
Bell was called to the stand to testify about the cemetery association. In previous testimony from Bell, she said the association was formed in September 2014. Bell told the court that she sought help from many different public officials such as the Ellis County and District Attorney's Office and the Sheriff’s Office by writing letters.
Joel Reese, one of Dance’s attorneys, asked Bell if her intention of contacting all these people was to have Dance thrown in jail. Bell said no it was not, because if Dance was in jail, it would do the association no good.
Reese then asked if the cemetery has been deeded any land or anyone in the association had plots at St. Mary’s. Bell said no. Bell said she estimates that there were about 50 grave markers in one of overgrown foliage area that was removed. Bell added she never went into the foliage, but bases her information on accounts from family members.
Testimony in the case will continue starting at 9 a.m. on Thursday in the 40th Judicial District Court. The court is meeting in the historic Ellis County Courthouse located in downtown Waxahachie.