By Beth Winegarner
Especially for the SF Examiner
A retired San Francisco real estate attorney and broker is embroiled in a land dispute in which the owners of a historic cemetery in Northern California are looking for more than a dozen people buried there more than a century ago.
Michael Pecherer bought a vineyard on the border of Redwood Valley Cemetery in Mendocino County in 2014. He sued the cemetery owners in 2017, saying that a fence enclosing the cemetery encroaches on his property and that the land likely contains multiple burials. But cemetery officials say the disputed property has always been part of the burial site and it is public land.
“This is not just a cemetery. It’s a pioneer cemetery. It’s the people who built Mendocino County, ”said Mark Velasquez, attorney at Best, Best & Krieger LLP, the law firm that represents the cemetery and its owner, Redwood River Cemetery District.
An old tombstone sits on controversial property on the border between Redwood Valley Cemetery and Michael Pecherer’s vineyard. (Courtesy Michael Pecherer)
Burials in the wooded two-acre cemetery in Redwood Valley began in the 19th century, if not earlier, and lasted until about 1936, according to Dana Kornegay, the district’s office manager. In 1952, the cemetery district acquired the burial site and put a fence around its borders and started maintaining the property.
Pecherer bought the 20-acre vineyard next door in 2014 to pursue a long-cherished winemaking dream, he said. When he first visited the property, he said, “I was walking around this property and something happened. It was mystical and honest with God, ”he said.
Pecherer lived in San Francisco during the 1960s and 1970s, practiced as a lawyer and worked there as a real estate agent until the 1990s. He now works as a recipient and arbitrator, a neutral party appointed by judges to assist in real estate sharing cases, and continues to work with courts in San Francisco. He lives in Orinda.
Shortly after Pecherer bought the vineyard, he decided to cut back several oaks. Their trunks were on the graveyard side of the fence, but their branches shaded some of its vines. After discussing it with a neighbor, the neighbor called a forester friend who was cutting down the trees instead of cutting them down, Pecherer said.
Redwood Valley Cemetery is located east of US Highway 101 and north of Ukiah in Mendocino County. (Courtesy of the Redwood Valley Cemetery District)
The cemetery district filed a criminal complaint with the Mendocino District Prosecutor’s Office. Pecherer was arrested and charged with cutting the trees. Ultimately, he closed the case and paid the cemetery district $ 83,000.41.
In 2016, the deer began to feed on Pecherer’s vines. He hired a surveyor to find out where to put deer fences. In doing so, Pecherer discovered that a 15 by 100 foot strip of land in the southwestern part of the vineyard, which was fenced off and was believed to be part of the cemetery, was actually his property. It also had a tombstone and clues to up to 16 other unmarked graves.
The tombstone belongs to Samuel Hinkston, born in Missouri in 1837, who came to California with his parents and siblings during the gold rush, worked as a farmer for much of his life, and died in a poor house in 1920, according to census records. A 1920 obituary by the Petaluma Daily Courier said Hinkston wanted to be buried in Redwood Valley Cemetery.
Pecherer suspects others are buried nearby, as evidenced by severe areas of soil that has settled over the years and a handful of human teeth he found while working in the vineyard.
Following these discoveries, Pecherer sued to reverse the deal and resolve the property dispute. In his filing, Pecherer said he was seeking a restraining order that would require the cemetery district “to fragment the corpse or corpses in the disputed area” and repackage them into the district property.
(Courtesy of the Redwood Valley Cemetery District)
In June 2018, a judge from the Mendocino District Court dismissed the case, finding that the cemetery had long ago been opened to the public. However, in June 2020, a California appeals court overturned the judgment and sent the case back to court. The court records did not determine whether the cemetery was legally open to the public, although “it may have been established at the time the cemetery was established. Facts have been resolved. “
Now the district and its lawyers are hoping to find relatives for those buried in the cemetery, particularly on the controversial property, so that they can stand up for their ancestors, Velasquez said. Hinkston never married or had children, and the other burials remain unknown, but descendants of those buried in the main part of the cemetery could still help, he said. The names of more than 50 people buried there have been identified.
Pecherer sees the lawsuit as an attempt to remove a “cloud from his title for the vineyard,” but Velasquez says it is about something much bigger.
“This case is about respecting and honoring the deceased and protecting our local heritage,” Velasquez said. “It’s about protecting the community.”
Those who believe they have buried a relative in the cemetery are invited to contact Mark Velasquez at RVCLawsuit@bbklaw.com. There is no public listing of who is buried in the cemetery, but some are visible on this website.
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