WINFIELD, W.Va. -- Howard Hunter gazed out the picture window overlooking the cemetery where more than 40,000 pets and about 1,000 people are buried and shook his head.
"I don't know what I'm going to do," he said, standing in the office of the J.L. Bowling Pet Cemetery on W.Va. 34 in Winfield.
Joseph "Lindy" Bowling, who died after a long illness in 2009, willed the pet cemetery and the Teays Valley Memorial Gardens, which are adjacent to each other, to Hunter.
Hunter, of Culloden, has worked at the cemetery since the 1980s and remembered how honored he felt in 1999 when Bowling told him that one day it would all be his.
Bowling didn't mention the more than $90,000 in federal taxes owed.
The federal government has filed suit to strip Hunter, who is in his 60s, of his ownership and auction off the 24 acres of cemetery.
He is reluctant to talk about the ordeal.
According to a complaint filed in federal district court earlier this year, the corporation Bowling formed to own and operate the cemetery, B's C&D, failed to pay its employment tax liabilities at various times from 2002 through 2010. The taxes, penalties and interest totaled about $91,000 at the time the complaint was filed in June.
Those obligations prompted the federal government to file federal tax liens against the property and the complaint seeks to foreclose on the liens and auction off the property to satisfy them.
After Bowling's death, Hunter became the sole shareholder and president of the corporation.
According to the Putnam County assessor's office, the property's market value is $254,000.
Hunter doubts the government will find a buyer. He has had the property listed for sale for about two years and no one has expressed much interest.
Bowling's realtor, Duke Jordan, who wasn't aware of the federal lawsuit, said he has the property listed for $499,000 and has had some people from outside the state express interest in buying the cemetery, which has 10 to 15 acres of undeveloped land.
"It's a one-of-a-kind place," said Jordan, who believes that former Gov. Arch Moore and other prominent state figures have pets buried there.
"A lover of animals could turn the place back into what it was and make it what it could be," he said.
The cemetery opened in the 1960s. More than a thousand people are buried there with their pets -- cats, dogs, horses, birds, pigs and reptiles, among other animals.
Hunter ignores the incessant demand of the telephone. He won't answer, because he can't help whoever is calling, whether it is a creditor or a potential customer.
He's stopped taking new clients but will bury those who have already paid for a plot.
Hunter let the few employees who worked at the cemetery go about two years ago and he is overwhelmed with the upkeep the cemetery requires.
"It takes two weeks to cut the grass," he said, which draws criticism from county residents when it becomes overgrown.
"He's only one man," Jordan said. "He's doing everything he can. He's there from dusk till dawn every day."
To make matters worse, the premises are favorite targets of thieves who have broken in repeatedly to steal lawn tools and equipment.
"It's not even funny how much stuff has been stolen," Hunter said.
When Bowling was alive he owned the St. Albans Roofing and Sheet Metal Co., which Hunter said was sometimes used as a source of funds to help the cemetery. It has since closed.
The financial difficulties are likely the unintended result of Bowling's kindheartedness and generosity, Hunter said. Bowling would often tell people they could pay later, and many never did, according to Hunter.
"I'll probably lose my house and everything," he said. "I didn't know what I was getting into."
Still, the cemetery is a special place for Hunter, who has several dogs buried on the property and plans for he and his wife to be buried beside them.
Fall decorations adorn many of the headstones and people are often there visiting graves.
"I hope it goes to an animal lover," Hunter said.
Reach Kate White at kate.wh...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1723.