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New owners take over struggling cemetery

Judge Freddie J. Romero, right, greets businessman Henry Mayhew following the Monday morning hearing that resulted in the transfer of Memory Lawn Memorial Park cemetery to Mayhew and his investors. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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More than seven years after a financially troubled cemetery was placed in receivership, a deal for new ownership has been inked.

“Now the hard work begins,” says Henry Mayhew, second from left. He is seen with some of his investors and business leaders who will run the nonprofit operating Memory Lawn and the for-profit venture Roswell International Products. From left they are engineer Paul T. Codd, wife and public relations specialist Deborah Mayhew, food industry professional and master gardener trainee Jay Berglind, and sales and marketing professional George Galanos. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

Judge Freddie J. Romero of the 5th Judicial District Court of Chaves County ordered Monday morning that the title to the Memory Lawn Memorial Park cemetery and its related assets be transferred to a group of investors led by California businessman Henry Mayhew.

The deal also ends the court-appointed receivership that has been overseen by Robert Corn, a former magistrate judge, since August 2011.

“It has been a long, arduous journey to get here,” said Mayhew. “Now the hard work begins.”

Mayhew was among the people involved in a lawsuit against the cemetery’s former owners that alleged lack of proper care and misuse of cemetery assets. Mayhew has referred to the cemetery’s rundown condition as “appalling.”

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But Mayhew also talks about his personal connection to the cemetery and the community.

He said he was born at St. Mary’s Hospital, a father who attended New Mexico Military Institute, and a mother and other relatives buried at Memory Lawn.

Today there are about 2,000 people interred at the site, about a mile outside the city limits on East 19th Street. Burials still occur on a periodic basis, as more than 40 available plots remain.

As part of Monday’s proceedings, Mayhew’s group agreed to pay the outstanding debt of the cemetery operations, which was put at about $1,082 after Corn’s final bill was submitted.

Bruce Voss, the lawyer for the investor group, thanked Corn and J. Craig Marion, one of the plaintiff’s attorneys, for their efforts over the years.

“Our desire is to have this returned to the grandeur that it once had,” he said.

No one present at the hearing objected to the investors’ agreement. Public notices that a final decision was expected had appeared in local papers. The one plaintiff in attendance, other than Mayhew, expressed her happiness with the proposal.

“I am delighted,” Joan Park said.

She and her sister were two of the original plaintiffs in the 2009 lawsuit.

“I think, of all the options that we have had for the future of the cemetery, it is by far the best,” Park said, “and I am very excited to see where Mr. Mayhew and his group take the cemetery from here.”

The concept forwarded by Mayhew and eight investors has several facets.

One is that the cemetery itself, which occupies about six acres of the property and about 36.8 acres of water rights, will be owned and controlled by a nonprofit, Memory Lawn Memorial Park. The investor group also has established a for-profit company, Roswell International Products LLC. That company will receive the remaining parcels of the property, which totals about 34 acres. The company is expected to generate revenues through two ventures, the sale of spices grown in a greenhouse to be built on the land and the sale of bottled and mineral water that will come from water leased by the nonprofit. At least a portion of those profits would be returned to the nonprofit for the care and maintenance of the cemetery.

In addition, the investor group intends to hire at-risk youth to work with its ventures as way to benefit both the businesses and the community. Modeled after Los Angeles’ Homeboy Industries started by Father Gregory Boyles, the idea is to reduce gang-related activities, drug use and crime among youth by providing them with jobs, purpose and role-models.

Finally, the plan involves the sale of about five acres of the land to local ophthalmologist Dr. Paul Engstrom and his business partner and fiancée, Sally Mellgren. They own property nearby on Sena Road. Proceeds from that sale, which was mentioned at a prior hearing to entail about $5,000 an acre, are intended to be used by the nonprofit for the benefit of the cemetery.

Engstrom previously had made an offer to take over the cemetery, but he said he is satisfied with what Mayhew’s group is proposing. He wants to buy the land near his Sena Road property to ensure that views and access remain reasonable.

“We were concerned what would happen across the road from us. We certainly don’t want anything that was devaluing to our property or whatever,” Engstrom said. “But after talking with him, I am pretty confident that he will do a very good job.”

About the land sale, he said, “We certainly have talked and negotiated and things are set, but the judge had to sign off first.”

Engstrom said that he does not have any immediate plans for the property once he acquires it.

Mayhew said his group is at least two months away from developing formal plans or beginning any work on the cemetery or adjacent property now owned by the nonprofit and the corporation. The first step involves repairing the water pump.

Engineer Paul T. Codd of Krummrich Engineering in Ventura, California, said he will pull the pump and obtain water samples within the next few weeks.

Once water is running again, the group will start to consider landscaping, creating pathways, installing benches and perhaps building stone walls to beautify the area. They also plan to dispose of the old tires that are located on the northern portions of the property.

Former food industry executive Jay Berglind of Illinois, studying to become a master gardener, is determining what to do in terms of landscaping. He said his idea at this point is to use indigenous plants, succulents and evergreens that will do well in the local environment.

“It is tricky,” he said. “It is windy, dry, tough soil.” The idea, he said, would be to put in plants that would not require irrigation or pumped watering after a few years.

Berglind would be among those in charge of the greenhouse and spice marketing business.

Another lead member of the new ownership group is George Galanos, a sales and marketing professional who has worked for about 20 years with Mayhew and Associates, based in Irvine, California.

Members of some of Roswell’s founding families are interred at Memory Lawn, which was officially formed in 1953. Over the years, several different entities have owned the cemetery. Allan J. Drake and his wife, Vivian Drake, working through their company Avidlo LLC, purchased it in 2008.

But clients began to make complaints soon after about alleged improper care of the graves. The lawsuit by Park and about six other plaintiffs was filed in 2009. More plaintiffs from the Rescue Memory Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery Alliance became involved as proceedings progressed.

In 2010, Drake filed for bankruptcy, and he passed away in 2014. The court placed the cemetery in receivership and under the control of Corn in 2011, and Judge Romero was assigned to the case in 2015.

At times, various proposals were considered to turn the cemetery over to other entities, including Chaves County and the city of Roswell. Both local governments declined to take on the costs and responsibilities for the property.

“I am pleased that we got somebody who appears to be very motivated who is going to get Memory Lawn back to a reasonable condition that the community can be proud of,” said Corn. “It is going to take a little transition time. We’ve got to get someone who will be able to come out here and find some place for somebody to be interned.”

Corn said he expects to be involved in some capacity until the new person is trained.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, reporter02@rdrnews.com.

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.