On March 26, the day before Barry Lee Bess, 71, of Cedar Grove was to be laid to rest in a family plot at Kanawha Valley Memorial Gardens in Glasgow, cemetery workers made a startling discovery: Bess’ gravesite was already occupied.
Forty-three years prior to that date, Bess, his wife, Norlena Mae, and parents William and Nancy Lee Bess, bought side-by-side burial plots in the cemetery, and later received deeds to the plots, according to a civil lawsuit filed Tuesday in Kanawha Circuit Court.
In 2008, Bess’ mother was buried in the plot. She was later joined by her husband, a World War II U.S. Army veteran and retired miner, in 2013.
But long-held plans for Barry Bess, a longtime youth league football coach in Cedar Grove, to be laid to rest next to his parents, and later, his wife, fell apart with the discovery of the mysterious body in what was to have been his grave.
Soon after the as-yet unidentified body was discovered, family members were told by a cemetery employee that the gravesites of Barry and Norlena Mae Bess could be relocated in another section of the graveyard, but could not remain next to the graves of William and Nancy Lee Bess.
That, in effect, “denied the family the burial plan they had depended on for more than 40 years,” according to the complaint filed in behalf of Bess’ survivors by Charleston attorney Ron Walters Jr.
Cemetery employees told family members on several occasions that they had no idea whose body was buried in Barry Bess’ gravesite, had no record of that burial having taken place and couldn’t discern any identifying markings on the unknown corpse’s casket.
There was no marker on the exterior of the grave or any surface disturbance to the burial site to indicate the presence of a previous burial, Walters said.
“It could be Jimmy Hoffa, for all we know,” Walters said during a news conference outside the Judicial Annex to announce filing the lawsuit.
In a letter sent to Attorney General Patrick Morrisey on Tuesday, Walters called for an investigation to determine the identity of the person buried in Bess’ gravesite “to ensure there was no foul play” involved in the death.
Walters also wants the A.G.’s office to investigate the corporate practices of the cemetery’s owners, Stone-Mor Partners LP, to determine if it is “engaged in double-selling burial plots.”
The circuit court complaint charges StoneMor Partners and a subsidiary, Cornerstone Family Services of West Virginia LLC, doing business as Kanawha Valley Memorial Gardens, with, among other things, breach of contract, negligence, fraud and grave desecration. A jury trial is sought.