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Easter week accident damages family's grave sites- again

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By Penny Fletcher

penny@observernews.net

RUSKIN- Three years ago Julie Jones and her daughter were taking flowers to her parents graves on Easter Day when a truck slammed across the entranceway to the Ruskin Memorial Park costing Julie’s brother Melvin Lewis more than $2,200 in repairs.

The graves of Melvin Lewis Sr. and his wife Sharon lie just inside the main gate of the memorial park at the corner of First Street S.W. and Manatee Drive.

That time, the family accepted the apology of William Sullivan Sr. as payment, after he told them he was suffering from the grief of his mother’s recent death and seeking a place to bury her when he lost control of his pickup truck.

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Three out of four children of the late Melvin and Sharon Lewis sit near their parents’ graves at Ruskin Memorial Park after the second accident to damage their hard work on the gravesite. From left are Becky Edmonds, Melvin Lewis Jr., and Julie Jones. A fourth sibling, Brenda Brewer, lives in Tennessee. Penny Fletcher photo

But now, another Easter week has brought damage to the Lewis family’s graves.

Holy Saturday, the day before Easter in the Christian calendar, three of the four siblings, Melvin Lewis Jr., Becky Edmonds, and Julie Jones gathered at the gravesite to examine the damage.

It was a beautiful day, and many people were driving in and out of the cemetery placing flowers on loved one’s graves. The grounds were mowed and the graves well-kept. A drive through the park attested to families that continue to care for the sites where the bodies of their loved ones rest.

But the children of Sharon Lewis, who died Feb. 8, 2004 and Melvin Lewis Sr., whose death occurred Jan. 8, 2008 did not find peace visiting their parents’ graves.

Instead they had to deal with piles of rubble again.

“Dad was still alive when it happened the first time but both headstones were put up when our mother died in 2004,” Becky Edmonds said. Now both parents are deceased, and their children wonder what can be done to stop the desecration.

Wayne Harris, a member of the memorial park’s volunteer board of directors, is asking the same question.

The cemetery, which was founded in 1908 (although its sign reads 1964, which was when it was dedicated), was deliberately placed in that spot by Ruskin’s founders because it was the highest – and driest– ground in the area. Historical reports show that the land was donated by the Dickman family at the time Ruskin was founded by the Ruskin Commongood Society on the Socialistic principles of John Ruskin. Standing on a high bluff, when flooding occurs, this ground remains dry.

But the Ruskin cemetery is not a business like other cemeteries in South County, Harris said. It is a nonprofit tax exempt 501 (3) C organization which means it is run by donations and subsists only on the sale of burial plots.

“With this economy,” Harris said, “people are being cremated to save on costs so we’ve really suffered financially and this was our worst year ever.”

The cemetery has also been the site of vandalism, drinking and partying, and even drug deals, he said. “And it (the latest accident at the Lewis’ gravesites) happened in the middle of the night. Sheriff’s deputies can’t be there all the time.”

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The first accident at the Lewis’ family’s parents’ graves happened while one of their children and grandchildren just happened to be delivering flowers back in 2007. Becky Edmonds photo

Harris is trying to get Geico to pay the costs of repair but says he is running into snags. “They say the driver’s insurance may not have been in effect, whatever that means,” he said.

A police report signed by Deputy Christopher Sullivan lists the driver who hit the brick entranceway March 27 as 33-year-old Arnoldo Mendez of Third St. S.E. in Ruskin.

Mendez’s statement on the report says that he was coming home from work and fell asleep at the wheel.

Both Lewis and Harris pointed out, however, that Third Street S.E. does not intersect with the roads that lead to the cemetery. It is in the area of Beaudette Park (the location of the Seniors Center and Ruskin Park, ball field and after school children’s program).

Mendez was not reached for comment.

None of the details make it any easier for the Lewis family to accept.

Besides paying to fix the damage the first time their site was hit, Lewis has paid to put streetlights and spotlights at the front of the park, and has fixed the park’s pump so people can water flowers. All this, he said, was done as a volunteer in the community where he lives and has his business, Melvin’s Heating and Air Conditioning Inc. on U.S. 41.

At first, the second accident had the siblings discussing moving the graves, but since then they’ve decided against it.

Becky’s husband Tray, a civil engineer, says he would advise having speed bumps on First Street approaching the cemetery’s entrance, and concrete pilings with an underground slab deep in the ground, filled with rebar (a concrete reinforcing bar) as the basis for any new entrance structure that is built.

Harris (who was interviewed separately by telephone) agrees that something must be done and is waiting to hear from Geico.

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In this photo are the gravesites for the Lewis family’s parents as they should look. Penny Fletcher photo

“The base was on solid concrete and a concrete block was moved that was 3 ½ -foot wide and 9-foot long. There had to be some real force to accomplish that. And remember, this was at 3:30 a.m. So far, Geico won’t commit anything to me. They say it could be two weeks before I even get an adjuster out,” Harris said.

None of this helps the Lewis family, members of which have spent thousands of dollars on marble headstones with a photograph; marble slabs with individual inscriptions covering the length of each parent’s grave; and a marble border around an area of decorative stone and a stone bench engraved with the “Lewis” name.

Some scratches to the marble remain from the first accident. So far, they are unable to see how much of the border is damaged from the second accident as Harris is leaving everything as it is until an insurance adjuster makes a report.      

“Hopefully, they’ll do the right thing,” Harris said, referring to the insurance company listed on the police report. “We want this thing settled as quickly as possible for all concerned.”

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