The Public Eye: Daughter suing Sacramento County, ex-coroner for handling of veteran’s remains

05/04/2014 12:00 AM

05/04/2014 10:40 AM

Having spent almost nine years in the military, including service in the Vietnam War, Edward H. Nellis was entitled to a military burial in a national cemetery when he died in 2005.

Instead, Sacramento County kept his cremated remains in storage for almost two years, then buried him in a pauper’s grave – despite knowing he was a veteran, records show.

His daughter Michelle Hernandez is suing the county and former Coroner Gregory Wyatt in Superior Court, accusing them of negligence and misrepresentation in their handling of Nellis’ corpse. She is asking for unspecified damages.

Many veterans have been similarly buried without proper recognition, said Fred Salanti, executive director of the Redding-based Missing in America Project, which has held 2,000 funerals across the country for veterans who would have been unrecognized if not for the organization’s research and intervention. Veterans often come back from war with mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction and other problems that lead to homelessness and estrangement from families, said Salanti, a Vietnam veteran who served in the U.S. Army.

Veterans often die alone, he said, leaving no one to ensure that their military service is memorialized.

Hernandez broke down in tears when she described her father’s fate. Eight months after his death, she said, the Coroner’s Office told her that her estranged father was buried in a national cemetery in Santa Nella. She did not learn the truth until last year, she said, and then she had her father disinterred from a mass grave and reburied at a national cemetery in Dixon.

“He was a dad, he was a veteran and he was a grandfather,” she said. “He didn’t deserve this. Why did they do this to my dad?”

Interim Coroner Kim Gin said she could not discuss the case because it’s pending in court. However, she said the county has changed the procedure for cases like Nellis’ in response to a 2012 state law. If the county’s public guardian determines the deceased has no available family or an estate, then the Coroner’s Office contacts the Department of Veterans Affairs to determine if he or she served in the military, Gin said. If the deceased was a veteran, the coroner turns over the remains for burial in a national cemetery, she said.

Concerned that many veterans were not getting proper military burials, veterans organizations such as Salanti’s have successfully lobbied for new laws in recent years. The 2012 law cited by Gin requires counties to “make every reasonable effort” to determine if a body is a veteran or a veteran’s dependent. A law approved in 2010 gave Missing in America and other organizations the authority to request information from coroners and funeral homes, and to act as a veteran’s next of kin if family members cannot be found.

“Our problem has been with the Sacramento County coroner putting them in paupers’ graves,” said Salanti, adding that the problem happens across the state and the country.

Gin said she has no idea how often veterans have been buried in the county’s pauper cemeteries. She said she doesn’t think it has happened often, “because they usually have families.”

The county recently partnered with Reichert’s Funeral and Cremation Services to provide a casket and other services for homeless or low-income veterans who have died. The National Cemetery Administration provides burial space, the opening and closing of a grave, a flag, a presidential memorial certificate and a headstone for deceased veterans. Other funeral costs are the responsibility of the family.

When Nellis died at age 60, he had long been estranged from his daughter and ex-wife, according to Hernandez and her mother, Daphne Robichaud. Nellis returned from Vietnam with post-traumatic stress disorder and became an alcoholic and behaved violently, said Robichaud, a licensed marriage and family therapist. They divorced shortly after his return.

Hernandez said she did not see her father much when she was growing up. He often got into disagreements with other adults when he did visit, and the last time she saw him was during her high school graduation.

The Sacramento County Coroner’s Office contacted Robichaud in November 2005, several months after Nellis died, Robichaud said. Robichaud and her daughter said the Coroner’s Office told them, in separate conversations, that he had been buried in the San Joaquin National Cemetery in Santa Nella.

When Hernandez became ill last year – she has a brain aneurysm – she wanted to learn more about her father. She contacted the cemetery and learned he was not buried there, she said.

She said she contacted the Coroner’s Office and was told he was buried in pauper’s grave. With the help of her attorney, Kenneth Reynolds, she found documents that pieced together what has happened since her father’s death . She shared those documents with The Sacramento Bee.

Nellis died March 23, 2005, from congestive heart failure, coronary artery disease and other problems, according to his death certificate. At the time, he was living alone in a Citrus Heights apartment and had hypertension, diabetes and cirrhosis.

The certificate, signed May 31, 2005, answered “yes” to the question of whether he was in the U.S. Armed Forces.

The next month, the county had Nellis cremated, according to records that it filed with the state. Nellis was not buried at Camellia Memorial Lawn until 22 months later. According to Reynolds, that’s because the cemetery will only open up the mass grave when a certain amount of remains are available for burial.

In October 2013, the grave was reopened so Nellis’ remains could be reburied, this time at the Sacramento Valley National Cemetery in Dixon. He was buried in December without a service, records show.

The cemetery lists Nellis as having served in the U.S. Navy, though Hernandez and her mother insist he served in the U.S. Air Force. A cemetery administrator said last week that the National Personnel Records Center provided the information on his service.

Hernandez said the mistake caps what has been a nightmare for her and her mother. “He’s been buried in a mass grave. He’s been left on the shelf at the morgue. These images won’t go away,” she said. “There will be no closure for me.”

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