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Years later, son still upset about damage to father's grave

Chris Dorst
James Olbert, whose father was buried in Crystal Block Cemetery, was one of 14 people who sued two drilling companies for damaging graves and headstones in the Logan County graveyard.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- James Olbert is still upset about the damage done to his father's grave by a bulldozer that plowed through Crystal Block Cemetery in 2004.

The cemetery is near Sarah Ann, a historic coal town that was home to many black miners near the Logan-Mingo County border.

In 2004 a bulldozer owned by General Pipeline Construction was building a road in southern Logan County to haul pipelines to a natural gas drilling site for Equitable Production Co., now the EQT Corp. The bulldozer drove right through the cemetery. It dislodged Daniel Olbert's headstone, so his final resting place is no longer known.

James Olbert lives in Holden today and was raised on Crystal Block Hollow. He was the first one who saw the damage to the cemetery.

"I discovered what happened. In 2004, we had a family reunion. I rented a bus. We went up there and saw what happened. It was very, very upsetting," Olbert said. "Regardless of who was buried there -- whether they were black or white -- something like this should never have happened. It is very disturbing. It caused a lot of grief."

Last October, a Logan County jury ruled General Pipeline and EQT must pay $900,000 in damages to Olbert and 13 other people who filed a lawsuit in 2006. The damages include $700,000 in compensatory damages and $200,000 in punitive damages.

The jury also required the companies to pay $14,000 to help restore the cemetery.

"My dad was buried there," Olbert said. "He worked in the mines. He told me, 'If there is any way possible, stay out of the mines.'"

Olbert followed his father's advice. He drove school buses in Ohio for many years before he returned to West Virginia and worked as a custodian for the Logan County Board of Education.

"My father's headstone wasn't destroyed, but it was moved. So we really don't know where he is located right now," Olbert said.

"When I was growing up, we were taught not to ever step on a grave, but to walk around it. Then they have the nerve to show so much disrespect with that bulldozer.

"Jerry Newsome, who was a World War II veteran, was also buried up there in Crystal Block Cemetery. His grave was destroyed. You go out and fight for your country and something like this happens. That really disturbed me.

On July 26, former Supreme Court Justice Elliott "Spike" Maynard, serving as a "senior status judge," turned down post-trial motions filed by General Pipeline and EQT to repeal the verdict in the case.

Maynard, who was also the judge during the trial, made his ruling more than nine months after the Logan County jury reached its verdict.

General Pipeline and EQT have not yet filed an appeal to the state Supreme Court, although they have said that they plan to do so.

Daniel Schuda, a Charleston lawyer representing General Pipeline, told the Gazette that the cemetery was unmarked and the damage was accidental.

"There were no signs and no fences to indicate the presence of graves," Schuda said previously. "Prior notice of the existence of the graves is necessary before it is proper, or even fair, to hold somebody responsible for innocently trespassing in that area."

During last fall's jury trial in Logan County, Schuda described the incident as an "innocent and unknowing entry."

Schuda did not return a telephone call on Friday.

How clearly the cemetery was marked is likely to be a major issue in the appeal to the state Supreme Court.

"There were markers all over the cemetery, headstones all over the cemetery," Olbert said. "I don't know of any cemetery in Logan County that has a fence. It was clear to the jury. It was clear to them that the bulldozer desecrated a cemetery."

Olbert believes the $14,000 the jury awarded to repair the cemetery is not enough.

"There is no way they can do that. At least a third of the cemetery has been hauled away. Graves are missing. Some of the headstones are missing," Olbert said. "There has been nothing done to reconstruct it. We are waiting for the finalization of the lawsuit."

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.

 

 


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