Tom Pelley said he was only trying to spruce up an old cemetery overgrown with weeds and lilac bushes in time for Memorial Day.
He wanted to cut a walkable path to graves long forgotten and overlooked, like the one for an infant named Lillian, who died in 1896, and the one for a soldier named William, who died in the bloodiest battle of World War I. Both are buried in Lakeview Cemetery, which sits on a hill overlooking Interstate 90 near the town of Sprague southwest of Spokane.
Pelley, 60, lives in an Airstream trailer right beside the graveyard, and for several years he has volunteered there as a groundskeeper, trying to make it presentable and stop nature from destroying century-old burial places. But on Friday morning, while he was mowing down foliage in front of the soldier’s granite headstone, a Lincoln County deputy came to cite him for misdemeanor trespassing.
“It’s a damn shame,” Pelley said Friday afternoon as he trudged through knee-high shrubs in the cemetery, slapping away mosquitoes. He said the people responsible for the cemetery “have a stated policy of willful neglect.”
Why, exactly, Pelley faces the trespassing charge is unclear. Since 2015, he had been volunteering at Lakeview with the consent of the three-member board that governs Lincoln County Cemetery District No. 7. That’s according to him and one former board member, Sam Ringwood, who stepped down from the elected position about two years ago.
“Certainly his help, when I was on the board, was appreciated,” Ringwood said.
Two current board members, Joy Vold and Don Bonk, refused to comment Friday, saying they would not discuss the situation involving Pelley until their next meeting on June 19. Attempts to reach the third board member were unsuccessful. An employee with the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office couldn’t immediately say who called the police on Pelley, and a court record was not immediately available.
Pelley, meanwhile, said he had drawn the ire of at least one board member when he tore out a pair of lilac bushes with roots that threatened to tip over several headstones. He acknowledged he had been told to stop working there, but said he continued anyway because he felt it was wrong to let the site fall into disrepair.
“Having a three-person board that could not care less about a cemetery,” he said, “is like taking your kid to a day care where they hate kids.”
Incidentally, those lilac bushes that Pelley tore out had separated Lakeview from another cemetery, Maccabee Cemetery, which is also owned and operated by the tax-funded cemetery district. Although the two graveyards are directly adjacent to one another, only Maccabee has received routine maintenance in years, if not decades.
The two cemeteries are distinguishable only by a straight line carved with a riding lawnmower. One side has green, neatly clipped grass, and the other begs visitors to cut a path with a machete. The contrast is even visible in aerial images from Google Maps.
Cemetery districts, like public water districts, typically rely on property taxes, but they receive far less money than county agencies such as the sheriff’s office. Ringwood, the former cemetery board member, said a lack of funds was a major reason why Lakeview Cemetery has not been maintained.
Ringwood also said there had been confusion over who owned that section of land, though a map on the Lincoln County Assessor’s Office website shows both cemeteries occupying the same 10-acre parcel and does not list additional owners.
Kenny Daniels, who was paid by the cemetery district as a part-time groundskeeper for about six months in 2015, said he was told not to bother with Lakeview Cemetery. “They told me that was a private deal and they had nothing to do with it, and it wasn’t in the district, just ignore it,” Daniels said.
There are at least 140 visible graves in Lakeview, the oldest dating back to 1882. Some are only visible because of Tom Pelley, who has spent many uncomfortably warm days hacking, mowing and digging up wild flora to reveal hidden headstones. He has found the stumps of old wooden crosses that were burned, broken and vandalized. And in a few cases, there were records of people who had been buried in the cemetery, and Pelley discovered their headstones.
“I know there’s people in Sprague who haven’t seen bunches of this stuff that I’ve turned up,” he said.
On Friday afternoon, Jack and Joy Glover happened to visit Maccabee Cemetery, where she has several relatives buried. The couple came from their home in Richland as part of an annual ritual in which they visit dead relatives before Memorial Day. Her two brothers served in the military.
The couple got to talking with Pelley about the various branches of their families in Sprague, where practically everyone knows everybody. Pelley, who has read some of the headstone inscriptions in Lakeview Cemetery dozens of times, got excited when he heard the last name Underwood.
As it turned out, Guy G. Underwood, son of Willard and Kate Underwood, had died in 1899 at age 25, but he was buried in Lakeview – a section of the cemetery grounds where Joy Glover had never set foot. His headstone, a small obelisk, was engulfed in another giant lilac bush that Pelley had partially chopped away.
Glover thought Guy Underwood might have been her great-great-uncle, but said she’d had no idea he was buried in Lakeview.
“I never would have gone there to look,” she said.
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