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Monday, October 26, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Northport man claims he’s being demonized over cemetery boundary

Neighbor charged with felony removal of grave marker

Donna Godes, owner of Forest Home Cemetery near Northport, Wash., stands next to a property line where she says a neighbor moved his fence over the top of unmarked graves. (Tyler Tjomsland)
Donna Godes, owner of Forest Home Cemetery near Northport, Wash., stands next to a property line where she says a neighbor moved his fence over the top of unmarked graves. (Tyler Tjomsland)

NORTHPORT, Wash. – Donna Godes swears there are human remains beneath the cyclone fence on the west side of Forest Home Cemetery, near the Canadian border.

Her neighbor moved the fence 5 feet about a year ago, Godes said. She pointed to a depression in the ground below the fence and said, “You don’t get divots like that for no reason.”

The neighbor, John Pratt, insists there are no bodies under his fence, and said he’s being demonized by the local community for a simple property dispute.

“I live there,” he said. “I know there’s no graves there.”

There are no markers remaining, nor are there any definitive records for the private graveyard stating who, if anyone, is buried beneath that fence.

But Pratt has been charged with unlawful removal of a grave marker, a felony under Washington law, and faces a potential prison sentence of up to five years and a $10,000 fine.

Godes said the issue comes down to respect for the deceased. She provided photos of goats that she believes belong to Pratt standing atop several gravestones, others munching on grass or flora around markers that date back to the early 20th century. There are holes in the ground that she believes were dug by Pratt’s dogs near the gravesites.

The cemetery was dedicated in 1912 but its perimeter was not recorded until recently, Godes said.

Pratt says the fence was moved off its original survey line by local officials in the 1990s. There are still survey markers on the property that show where the cemetery plots should end, he said, and that survey has stood up against legal challenges by surrounding property owners.

Godes took over the cemetery after the death of her uncle, Charles Pierce, who was the caretaker dating back to the 1970s. Pierce died after falling down crumbling steps at the Spokane Raceway Park in August 2006.

Pratt said he had an agreement with Pierce to move the fence before the caretaker’s death. When Godes took over, Pratt said he tried to make a similar deal through legal channels.

“I put my foot down, and they don’t like it,” Pratt said. “And then nobody will listen to me. I’m fighting this all by myself.”

The remains of Bertha Mattheson’s husband, Jerry, are buried in a shared plot on the cemetery’s east side cared for by members of the American Legion. She said she couldn’t see why Pratt would care about 5 feet of useless property at the expense of possibly disturbing graves.

“Why would you move the fence in 5 feet, because what is that? That’s nothing,” said Mattheson, pointing to the natural barrier of trees and brush that indicated the previous location of the fence.

Pratt’s attorney, Michael Golden, said the issue is a civil matter and Pratt should not have been charged with a crime. He said if there was evidence bodies had been buried on the land that’s in dispute, an attempt would be made to resolve the issue.

“My guy’s charged with a crime, and the standard of proof on that is pretty high,” Golden said. “But there’s none.”

Godes said there had been some discussions to use ground radar to determine whether human remains were buried underneath those depressions in the ground. Mattheson, whose husband rests within view of scenic mountains, soaring eagles and towering pine trees, said that in her view, the legality of Pratt’s actions don’t matter.

“I really think he needs to put that fence back,” she said. “You don’t go into a cemetery and move anything, no matter if the property belongs to you or not. If it’s on graves, it’s on graves and you don’t touch them. They belong to somebody.”

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