SPRINGER, N.M. (KRQE) – Tucked away in a quiet corner of northeastern New Mexico, the Springer Town Cemetery is a mournful place where folks come for quiet reflection. But don’t be deceived by the peaceful scene there. You see there’s something terribly wrong at the Springer Cemetery. You won’t find any clues among the irregular rows of tombstones. The secret behind the town graveyard rests with the souls who are interred there. It’s a shocking tale of negligence, governmental incompetence and a shameful disregard for bereaved families.
“It’s a horrible situation,” says Springer Town Councilor Anna Phillips.
“How could this have gone on so long,” cemetery researcher Joy Matlack wonders.
“We all are just devastated over what’s going on up here,” says Gail Farmer, a member of the Springer Cemetery Board.
Occupied Family Plots
Mary Wiggins, who grew up in Springer, knows the problem at the cemetery first hand. When Mary’s dad passed away he was to be interred in the family plot. It didn’t happen. “The cemetery person that was going to dig the (grave) said that there were people buried where we thought our plots (are located),” Mary Wiggins says. The family was forced to bury their dad elsewhere in the cemetery. “We were devastated because we couldn’t do what mother and daddy had asked us to do which was bury him in the family plot,” Wiggins says.
After Springer resident Della Rich passed away, cemetery workers discovered the unmarked cremains of another person in Della’s burial plot. What’s going on at the Springer Cemetery? With some 1700 souls buried there, the century-old graveyard is virtually out of space. There is no more room. However, rather than turn away grieving families Springer’s City Hall has been re-selling burial plots.
“They go to dig a (grave) to bury somebody’s loved one and they find that somebody is already there,” says Springer Cemetery Board member Penny Jump. “What do you say? I mean its heart wrenching,” Jump says.
Who’s Buried Where?
“One thing we’re trying to figure out is … who’s actually buried in those graves,” says Joy Matlack, a volunteer researcher working with the Cemetery Board. For several years Joy has been trying to create an electronic database of the burials in the town graveyard. It’s a daunting task. All Joy has to work with is a fragile 1931 map someone found in a closet, an outdated map from 1971 and the grave markers in the cemetery.
“What’s actually in the cemetery doesn’t match any of the maps,” Joy Matlack says. “You can see from year to year to year, decade to decade, where a plot was sold and then it was resold, and then it was resold, and then it was resold,” Matlack told News 13.
Matlack says the Lopez family burial plot was sold to two different families. “They were going to bury (Roger Lopez) next to his parents. But when they went to dig the grave they found a coffin,” Matlack said. The Lopez family had to bury Roger elsewhere in the cemetery.
Cemetery Board member Gail Farmer says the town of Springer double sold burial plots belonging to the Louden family. “We had to reimburse the Loudon’s (a different burial plot) so that their family could be together,” Farmer says.
The same thing happened to the Kear family who bought 8 burial plots in the Springer graveyard years ago. However, when Mr. Kear passed away the cemetery couldn’t bury him in the family plot because there was a Mr. Martinez already interred there. The cemetery tore down an old storage building to make room for Mr. Kear’s remains.
And, then there’s the Coppick family. They were surprised to find strangers buried in the grave plots they bought some 40 years ago. “They had no knowledge of these (gravesites) being sold to anybody else and (they are) plots that they have deeds for that they obviously can’t use now,” Joy Matlack says.
Consider the ‘Pancho’ Mestes gravesite. “Mr. Mestes was supposed to be buried in Potter’s Field,” Matlack says. “I have no idea why he wasn’t buried in Potter’s Field but he was buried in the middle of Mrs. Walters’ plots. When the Walters came up to pay their respects to Mr. Walters they found Mr. Mestes in their plots,” according to Matlack.
Keith Walters first noticed a stranger had apparently been buried in the family plot some years after his dad died. “It’s a desecration to have someone take your grave that you paid for and put someone else in it,” Keith Walters says.
Even though the Mestes grave doesn’t show up on any of the cemetery maps, officials at Springer’s Town Hall have shown little interest in resolving the issue for the Walters family. In fact, it was only after the Walters family hired an attorney that Springer officials investigated. Keith Walters was recently told ‘Pancho’ Mestes is probably not interred in the Walters’ family plot, however, nobody is exactly sure just where Mr. Mestes was laid to rest.
Keith Walters isn’t the only victim to complain. In 2007 Mary Wiggins and her siblings wrote a letter of complaint to the Town of Springer after the mix-up involving Mary’s dad’s burial. Mary wrote, “… you have sold and interred remains in 4 of our plots.” Springer officials did not respond to the letter. A follow-up letter last year was also ignored. Mary Wiggins says Springer officials admitted making the mistake but did not apologize.
“I think it’s terrible to citizens that are in mourning that have to deal with that. To me it’s just very disrespectful,” says Springer Town Councilor Anna Phillips.
“When you’re lost your loved one it’s a difficult situation to deal with anyway. But then when you go and don’t have a place to put them I just can’t imagine. They need to stop selling any plots whatsoever until land is purchased and they have a new cemetery,” Councilor Phillips says.
Springer Mayor Fernando Garcia did not return repeated phone calls for comment. KRQE News caught up with the Mayor at the tire and lube center where he works. Mayor Garcia blames prior administrations for the cemetery mess. “You’re talking 20 years right thereof an administration that didn’t keep accurate records,” Mayor Garcia said. “(It’s) spotty, bad record keeping. That’s all it was. It comes down to bad record keeping under different people, under different clerks. It is just bad record keeping,” Springer’s Mayor says.
The Springer Town Council is negotiating to purchase adjacent land for a new cemetery. While the politicians point fingers to assess blame, it’s the cemetery volunteers who must console the grieving victims at a country graveyard that is not as peaceful as it seems.
“Somebody has to stand up for those people and the families that are in the ground,” Joy Matlack says.
“It’s a very sad situation. They’re our ancestors and they deserve the respect that we can give them,” says Cemetery Board member Gail Farmer.