Neglected cemetery 'disrespectful' to service members, veterans say

Veterans groups are Getting Results by cleaning gravesites

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Retired U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. John Vaccaro never noticed the old cemetery near his home until it caught the attention of his wife, Jennifer, as she was walking around the neighborhood.

"The grass and weeds were as high as the fence," said Vaccaro.  "It looked like a vacant lot. It didn't look like a cemetery."

As Vaccaro pushed aside the weeds, he was troubled to see the words inscribed on some of the grave markers : Vietnam. Korea. World War II. World War I.

"Tombstones were pushed over, buried. I tripped over one," Vaccaro told News 6.  "It was (the grave of) a Vietnam vet."

"I was disgusted. Absolutely disgusted," said former Navy Corpsman Chad Vander Velden, pointing to a World War II soldier's headstone that had been knocked over and covered with brush.  "I'm a vet, and vets don't get treated like this. They're not supposed to.  This is someone who fought for us."

WWII soldier's misplaced headstone

In the far corner of Sunset Park cemetery sits a crumbling cinder-block building covered in graffiti that appears to have once been a maintenance shed.

Vaccaro discovered a weathered grave marker propped up against the building belonging to Pvt. Jack Dixon, a U.S. Army veteran who served in World War II.

Dixon died in Daytona Beach in 1965 at the age of 47.

"You've got a guy who served our country during the second world war (whose headstone is) leaning against this filth," said Vaccaro.

Vaccaro wanted to return Dixon's grave marker to the proper location but was unable to identify the soldier's burial site.

"I need to know where Jack Dixon goes," said Vaccaro.  "I'm begging for help. I need to know where that guy's (headstone) goes."

"Maybe he has no family, and there's nobody to speak up for him, as there is no one to speak up for the other veterans buried here and being disrespected," said retired Navy Seabee Bill Cardoza.

News 6 found a 76-year-old Daytona Beach woman who is likely Dixon's daughter.  Her father's name was Jack Dixon, according to her birth certificate.  The soldier’s 1965 obituary indicates that a woman with the same name is his daughter.

The woman, who was born a year before Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, said she never met her father and had no living family members who would know his burial location.

Veterans’ groups clean up cemetery -- twice

Believing that no one was properly caring for Sunset Park Cemetery, Vander Velden's organization, Volusia Vets, organized a cleanup of the 8-acre property in 2015.

"A lot of these (graves) were grown over," Vander Velden said as he stood along a section of the cemetery that he said was hidden beneath brush.  "They were under 4 inches of dirt. We didn't know there was a row of people here."

"These people are gone and  forgotten," said Vaccaro, who volunteered to cut weeds, remove trash and wash mud-caked grave markers.  "As an American and as a veteran, it's unacceptable."

Despite the efforts of Volusia Vets, the cemetery quickly fell back into disrepair, members told News 6.

The volunteers returned to the cemetery in August to haul away even more trash and debris.
Other veterans' groups joined the cleanup.

"It was in horrible condition-- plastic bottles and trash lying around," said Navy veteran Vincent Faulkner.
"I pray that someday this never happens to me, or anybody that I know, or my son, who is still active duty."

Faulkner, the veterans outreach director for the Daytona Beach chapter of Team Red White & Blue,
noticed that new burials had occurred at the cemetery as recently as September.

Yet the graves of veterans and others interred at Sunset Park decades ago were being neglected, he said.

"There has to be some moral, ethical code that says, 'I have to maintain the people who have already been put in the ground here,'" Faulkner told News 6.

Nonprofit cemeteries exempt from maintenance regulations

Sunset Park, which was established in the 1950s, is registered as a nonprofit cemetery association, according to state records.

Alexander Wynn, the owner of the RJ Gainous Funeral Home in Daytona Beach, has been president of the Sunset Park Cemetery Association since 2009, records show.

Wynn is also president of the National Funeral Directors & Morticians Association, an industry organization that promotes the professional and business interests of its members, according to the association's website.

When News 6 contacted Wynn to inquire about maintenance procedures at Sunset Park, he said he was unaware that veterans' groups had cleaned up the cemetery on two occasions.

"This is the first I'm hearing about this," Wynn told News 6 by phone. "No one has said anything to me about it."

Under Florida law, licensed cemeteries must establish trust funds to provide for the future care and maintenance of the cemeteries.

However, nonprofit cemeteries that do not sell burial spaces or merchandise are exempt from that regulation.

If the state's Division of Funeral, Cemetery and Consumer Services receives a complaint about maintenance issues at a nonprofit cemetery, the agency has the power to investigate and mediate the complaint, according to state law.

No consumer complaints have been filed against Sunset Park, according to the Florida Department of Financial Services, which regulates cemeteries.

In 2015, Volusia County Code Enforcement received a complaint of "grass/weeds in excess of 12 inches, yard trash, rubble, debris and/or waste" at Sunset Park Cemetery.

However, the matter was closed without any action taken against the cemetery association, records show.
County representatives could not provide additional details about the complaint.

According to Wynn, an 87-year-old employee of his funeral home maintained Sunset Park until his death in 2015.

Wynn did not say whether anyone else regularly visits the cemetery to remove trash and mow weeds.

Wynn told News 6 that the nonprofit association collects a $400 "donation" for each new burial that is used for cemetery upkeep.

"It is not enough," he said.

Soldier's headstone returned to burial site

When News 6 first contacted Wynn about the location of Pvt. Jack Dixon's burial site, staff members at his funeral home were not immediately able to determine where the World War II soldier's misplaced headstone belonged.

"I thought this might be an easy find, but unfortunately the records aren't that good prior to 1968," said Eulissa Boyd.  "This might take some time, especially since everyone that was on the (cemetery association) board is deceased or in ill health."

However, Boyd was able to locate an old map of Sunset Park nearly two months later.

Although "Jack Dixon" does not appear on the handwritten records, staff members found an entry for
"Jack Dickson," which they believe had been mistakenly misspelled. The burial plot did not have a grave marker, they said.

A funeral home employee moved Dixon's headstone back into the cemetery.

"Mr. Dixon deserves for his headstone to be placed where it should be," said Faulkner, who said volunteers from his organization are willing to clean up the cemetery in the future if others in the community do not take on that responsibility.

"You can't shake these veterans' hands and thank them for their service. But you can come out and take care of their final resting spot," he said.

About the Author:

Emmy Award-winning investigative reporter Mike DeForest has been covering Central Florida news for more than two decades.