Animal owners sue over closure of Howell pet cemetery

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News
Albert Holtz's dogs -- Rocky, Cheerio and Tyler -- all buried in Heavenly Acres.

Howell — A group of pet owners are suing the operators, past and present, of a Livingston County pet cemetery for fraud, alleging the facility is reneging on a promise to provide “perpetual” care of their beloved animals, which the owners may be forced to exhume and remove.

In the late 1970s, Heavenly Acres Pet Cemetery began burying animals on a 12-acre site at 501 S. Kellogg Road, and in the process sold burial lots, caskets, markers, flowers and funeral services for deceased animals.

The cemetery operators charged grieving pet owners fees for “pre-need” planning and “perpetual care and maintenance” of the sites.

But pet owners  discovered in recent months that “perpetual” apparently did not mean a forever resting place, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday in Livingston County Circuit Court.

Pet owners, from left, Todd Golding, Carol Skurski, Kim Goldstein, Jill Daly, Diane Rousseau and Pat Mankin pose in front of of the entrance of Heavenly Acres Pet Cemetery in Howell.  They have been advised that they should exhume the bodies of their pets from the closed cemetery because the property is on the market to be sold.

The plaintiffs say they've been wrongly denied access to the 12-acre burial site, which was closed after the property's leaseholder defaulted, and told to have their pets' remains exhumed. 

“This has been horrible,” said Albert Holtz of Bloomfield Hills, who has three dogs buried in Heavenly Acres, now chain-locked with a “No Trespassing" sign.

“We have a lot of concerns, including the current owners will bulldoze the cemetery and sell it off for other purposes,” he said.

Holtz said one estimate was that 74,000 pet animals have been buried in the cemetery over the past 40 years.

The suit names Carol Street Park Ridge, Stone Investments, First Pet Care Services (doing business as Heavenly Acres Pet Cemetery); Heavenly Acres Pet Cremation Services and Linda Louise Williams.

Williams and her husband ran the cemetery for more than 20 years before they divorced in 2001. Her ex-husband took the cemetery property in a settlement and about nine years later he defaulted on the mortgage and the property was sold in a bank foreclosure, according to court records.

Williams then entered into a lease with the new owners, which included an Illinois corporation, Stone Investments, and continued to operate the cemetery until late summer 2018, when she in turn, defaulted on the lease and received notice to quit, according to the complaint.

The suit alleges she held a burial and funeral services on her day of eviction, Sept. 30, and continued selling lots and collecting fees until November 2018, the suit alleges.

That’s when an attorney for the current owner, Carol Street Park Ridge, contacted people who had pets buried there over the past 40-plus years and gave them 30 days to remove their remains, according to the suit. After that deadline, they were to be considered in trespass.

Williams, who still operates Heavenly Acres Pet Cremation Services in Livingston County, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Shari L. Pollesch, the attorney who mailed out the letter to some pet owners, declined Tuesday to answer questions from The News but released a statement, which she said her client, site owner Carol Street Park Ridge LLC, provided her before the holidays.

"Carol Street intends to market the property for sale with the hope of a sale to persons or entities willing to continue to maintain the pet cemetery. However, the future use of the property will ultimately be determined by the new owner," the statement said.

“The cemetery has historically been closed during the winter months and is now closed until further notice. No one should enter the property without the express permission of the owner through its attorneys, Burchfield & Pollesch, P.C. They can be contacted at (810) 227-3100," according to the statement.

"If pet owners are uncomfortable with the uncertainty of the future use of the property, they are welcome to retrieve their grave markers or pet remains by making arrangements through Burchfield & Pollesch, P.C."

A new gate was recently installed on the road that leads to the cemetery.

Pet owners say they spent thousands of dollars for burial plots, services and fees and were traumatized to be suddenly told to exhume and remove their animals' remains.

“I had a pre-purchased plot and (Williams) told me the pet cemetery was closed for the winter,” said Diane Rousseau of Waterford Township, who has five pets buried there. “It had red flags going off so I started to investigate and uncovered that she had lost the lease on the property I thought she owned.

“My goal is to keep the pet cemetery as is,” Rousseau said. "If not, we would need time to get all the proper permits to exhume and rebury at enormous expense. But I feel for those people who cannot do this.”

Sandy Reed of Howell said her Shetland Sheepdog, Shawn, was buried at Heavenly Acres 32 years ago.

“I have not missed a year since his burial in visiting, cleaning up branches and leaves and putting fresh flowers on his grave,” said Reed. “…I was told he would receive perpetual care and would like his grave to remain undisturbed. If that is not possible, I need time to be able to retrieve him…”

Kim Goldstein of Bloomfield Hills said she has four dogs in the cemetery, buried between 2001 and 2011.

“I am devastated at what is happening,” Goldstein said. “I watched them buried in their coffins with blankets, pictures and a ton of love around them. It was so very hard to do but I had to because I loved and still love them forever.

“Who could ask anyone to exhume their pets or possibly have their gravesites bulldozed? It blows my mind.”

Pet cemeteries are not licenses or regulated by the state, according to agencies contacted Tuesday for comment.

While an animal division of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development regulates the disposal of livestock, it does not include pets, according to Jennifer Holton, a department spokeswoman. She said it is up to local governments to regulate pet cemeteries.

The lawsuit seeks a temporary restraining order against any reuse of the Heavenly Acres Pet Cemetery property, dollar damages for the pet owners and a ruling that it remain a pet cemetery because many of the animals have been there more than 15 years and have established legal occupancy. It is assigned to Judge David Reader, with a status conference scheduled for May 8.

(248) 338-0319