By LYDIA BERGLAR
Families who have relatives buried in Tinker Cemetery off of Byrds Chapel Drive have had ongoing issues with the property owner next to the cemetery for about a year. These families are, quite simply, fed up. Complaints include difficulties accessing the cemetery, removal of the cemetery’s fence and gate, a broken monument, trash in and around the cemetery, graffiti on a tree, and loose dogs.
The Sentinel investigated each of these complaints, visited the cemetery, spoke with numerous residents, two county representatives, the Dade County Sheriff’s Office, and Steven Ryan of Ryan Funeral Home. Ultimately, the complaints could constitute a civil case, but the sheriff’s office does not have evidence needed for a criminal arrest.
Josh Wooten has acted as the leader of the group of frustrated residents. Several of his relatives, including his grandmother whom he was very close with, are buried in the cemetery, and he has helped maintain the cemetery over the last few years. Wooten said, “I go up there usually twice a week to check on things and visit with family. My grandma, grandfather, two uncles, and an aunt are buried there. My grandma was like a mother to me, and to see someone deface her place of rest truly does upset me.”
According to qPublic.net, the property on the northern and western sides of the cemetery was sold in June 2021 to Randy Sturgill and Morgan Gregg. The property does not have an address, but it is directly south and west of 697 Byrds Chapel Drive.
To be explained later in this article, Sturgill was arrested by the Dade County Sheriff’s Office in the first week of August with felony charges (unrelated to the cemetery): Interference with Government Property, Theft by Bringing Stolen Property into State, and two counts of Willful Obstruction of Law Enforcement Officers by Use of Threats or Violence.
There is an easement on Sturgill and Gregg’s driveway that allows access to the cemetery. The property owners parked a trailer and built a shed in what used to be the parking area for the cemetery, but because this is on their property, they are within their rights to do so. Previously, parking had not been an issue because no one had built on or otherwise used the space right next to the cemetery.
The topography of the land in question is important. A long, steep, rocky drive on Sturgill’s property leads up a hill to both the trailer and the cemetery. Due to the trailer and shed, there is very little room to turn a vehicle around, much less park cars and a hearse for a graveside service.
The history of this road is also worth mentioning. Wooten’s father, Tommy Wooten, said, “When I was a kid, that road to the cemetery went across the freeway to Highway 11. I had no idea that it would belong to Sturgill. It was a county road back in the 1960s.”
According to Wooten, “[Sturgill] told a small, elderly man that he had to park at the bottom of the hill and walk up.” Doug Gass confirmed that his brother, Marty Gass, had been told to park at the bottom. The brothers have relatives buried in the cemetery.
County Executive Ted Rumley said, “[Sturgill] told somebody that if they have a funeral, they’ll have to park at the bottom and carry the casket up the hill.”
Tommy added that there is no room to unload a riding mower, so to mow the cemetery, the families would have to park a trailer at the bottom of the hill and push a lawn mower up. Having visited the site, the Sentinel can confirm that this (or hauling a casket) would be no easy task.
Sergeant Chad Payne (public information officer with DCSO) said, “If there’s a funeral, and they can’t get back there, they need to call us. Even though it’s a civil matter, we can go talk to him.”
Explaining state laws, Rumley said, “The right-of-way is in the deed, but if [Sturgill] wanted to, he could put four gates up with locks and give the people that have family buried there keys to them. He owns that land; they only have the right to enter, but they have driving rights, not just a walking path.”
He further explained, “In the state of Georgia, you can bury a person pretty much anywhere you want to unless it’s in a covenanted subdivision. You’ve gotta have it surveyed, and it’s supposed to be fenced. It’s got to be stipulated in the deed. You cannot block people from accessing the cemetery during daylight hours. After dark, you can put a gate up and lock it.”
Ryan said, “We’ve had trouble when they had a cremation memorial service at Tinker Cemetery. Twice, our monument engraver wasn’t able to get back there to cut a death date on a stone because this man’s stuff was in the way. I think our engraver had to get law enforcement to get him to move his stuff.”
Several people reported that Sturgill was cooperative when he first moved to the property. Payne and Chief Deputy Tommy Bradford said that early on, Sturgill had vehicles sitting on the county road, but he moved them when asked and seemed pleasant and friendly.
Gass reported that Sturgill was polite, even when telling them to park at the bottom.
Rumley said, “He was nice when he first moved there. He knew that cemetery was there when he bought it. No one’s gone up there and done anything negative to his property.”
Regarding trash and vandalism, Wooten said, “One time when I was over there recently, he had beer cans slung all over the graves. I’d bought an expensive four-foot angel monument, and a piece had broken off. I looked around for tree limbs, thinking maybe a tree fell on it, but there was nothing. It looks like it’s been shot. He painted a naked woman on a tree.”
The Sentinel saw the graffitied tree when visiting the property. However, depending on exactly where the property lines fall, the tree in question might sit on Sturgill’s land. There is also no direct evidence that Sturgill is responsible.
Wooten added that Sturgill watched him as he surveyed the state of the cemetery, chuckling at Wooten’s apparent displeasure.
Eleanor Holmes, Wooten’s aunt, reported, “All up and down the sides of the hill there’s junk, parts of automobiles, barrels that look like they had fuel in them, and coolers.” Holmes’ husband, parents, and older brother are buried in the cemetery.
Gass reported that he and his brother are upset about the cemetery being desecrated. He said, “We always have kept it mowed and looking nice. We need to get up there to mow. There’s junk on both sides of the road. He was supposed to have moved it, but it was still up there.”
However, while Sturgill must keep the right-of-way clear enough to drive through, he is allowed to keep as many items along the side of the road as he would like. Payne explained, “He is prohibited by state law from blocking that easement, but that doesn’t mean he can’t pile his belongings on either side of that driveway, as long as he doesn’t block it. As much as I’d like for those people to clean up their area and not be an issue for the patrons of the cemetery, there isn’t much we can do about it.”
He added, “We’ve had complaints of him blocking the easement, but we’ve never actually found him to be blocking the easement except for the first time we went out there. We told him he can’t block it, and as far as we’ve seen, he hasn’t blocked it anymore, but he makes it difficult for people to pass through.”
Tina Kesler’s daughter is buried in Tinker Cemetery. Kesler is raising her grandchildren after her daughter died in a car accident. She reported, “We were last up there in June for the anniversary of my daughter’s passing. We had to walk over a bunch of trash. When my grandmother was buried there in 2020, there wasn’t any of that stuff there, but if we had held a graveside service for my daughter, we wouldn’t have been able to get in there.”
She continued, “I talked to the police to see if they would go with us, and they told me to call if we had any problems. There were several dogs that growled.” Because of the dogs, Kesler is uncomfortable bringing her grandchildren to the cemetery.
The dogs run loose (as allowed in the county because there are no leash laws). Holmes described the dogs as threatening, but they were behind a fence when she was last there. Tommy said, “When I went up there, there were two pitbulls that came after me. [Sturgill] and his wife grabbed them until I left.”
Payne said he has not had an issue with the dogs. When the Sentinel visited, several dogs were walking loose in and around the cemetery, but they did not bark or growl. Rather, they seemed friendly.
Regarding the fence and gate that once stood at the entrance to the cemetery, Holmes and Wooten believe that Sturgill removed them. The sheriff’s office, however, does not have proof that they were removed by Sturgill. Payne said, “Knowing somebody did something and raising it to the level of probable cause to make an arrest are two different things. Taking away somebody’s freedom is a serious thing, so we have to make sure we do everything right.”
According to Ryan, “As a funeral director, for me it goes back to respect. If a cemetery is fenced off, it’s illegal to take down the fence, it’s illegal to remove a gate, it’s illegal to junk up a cemetery. A lot of the laws regarding cemeteries are felonies.”
Ryan, however, is only involved on the funeral side, with cemeteries being governed by a separate board. Additionally, the state board of cemeteries is only over perpetual care cemeteries–not private ones such as Tinker Cemetery.
The Sentinel looked up O.C.G.A. (Official Code of Georgia Annotated) entries regarding cemeteries, but nothing was explicitly related to the issues surrounding Tinker Cemetery. However, the state’s Department of Natural Resources Historic Preservation Division had this to offer: “If you are a descendant or heir of someone buried in the cemetery, there is no specific statute that addresses right of entry to cemeteries on private property. However, case law in Georgia has been interpreted to mean that the heirs of those buried in the cemetery have an implied easement on the property. The easement gives the heirs the right to prevent disturbance to the graves and the right of ingress and egress for taking care of the burial plots. However, even descendants or heirs should ask the landowner for permission to come onto the property and discuss notification of intent to visit, the frequency of visitation, and passageway to be used.”
Citizens suspect that there is no water/sewer at the trailer, so they are concerned about what is being done with waste. As Rumley explained, the health department must complete an inspection and confirm water/sewer/septic systems before electricity is turned on. Currently, no one except for the property owners know where waste from the trailer is going.
Rumley described Sturgill as “a habitual violator.” Rumley was made aware of the issues roughly a year ago. “I’ve known that cemetery my whole life. I went and talked to Sheriff Ray Cross. As far as what the county can do, we’re waiting on the sheriff’s department.”
Tommy reported that once when he visited the cemetery, Sturgill brought a rifle out of the trailer. He said, “When I pulled up to the cemetery, he and his wife were standing outside. He ran into the trailer, came back with a rifle, and leaned it against his car. I stopped, got out, and walked into the cemetery.”
Nothing else resulted from this instance, and Tommy did not call the police about it. However, because Sturgill is a felon, he is not allowed to have a gun. Payne said, “He’s wanted for larceny. He has a lengthy criminal history, but we aren’t allowed to tell you the specifics of it.”
Sturgill is listed on Ohio’s “Lawrence County Municipal Court Active Warrant List” with a birthdate of April 9, 1988, warrant issue date of August 29, 2016, and case number CRB1600479.
The “West Virginia Mugshots” Facebook page has a post including Sturgill’s mugshot dated September 14, 2016, the same birthdate as the Lawrence County warrant list, and the charge “Fugitive From Justice.”
As published in “The Baltimore Sun” on September 15, 2017, the Harford County police blotter reads, “Randy Shawn Sturgill, 29, of the 7900 block of Trappe Road in Dundalk, was arrested Tuesday on a Frederick County warrant for failing to appear for court in a case in which he was charged with making a false statement to police and possession of drug administration equipment.”
Readers might recall an article in the August 9 issue of the Sentinel titled, “High-Speed Police Chase Ends in Trenton and Stolen Tractor Recovered.” Sturgill is the man who was found in possession of the stolen tractor, a roughly $40,000 Kubota MX5400, which belongs to Randy Lawson of Randy’s Pawn Shop.
Lawson does dirt work and houses his equipment in Alabama just across the state line. He said, “I put out a $1,000 reward on Facebook for the missing tractor. I got an anonymous call at 7:30 a.m. on Saturday, August 5 saying that my tractor would be coming through the Byrds Chapel/Back Valley area in a U-Haul that morning. I had four friends in vehicles helping me look for this U-Haul, and I called Dylon Floyd at the Trenton Police Department.”
Trenton PD then informed DCSO, and law enforcement found Sturgill at his property next to the cemetery with the tractor. Payne said, “We had to fight Sturgill. He almost gouged out one of my officer’s eyes. We charged him accordingly. He started blocking his driveway with trucks, and when my officers got there, they told him to get on the ground. When they went to handcuff him, he started fighting, but after that, he was fine again. He was polite and cooperative.”
Sturgill was released on bond very quickly after this arrest.
The cemetery issue, however, is a civil matter at this point. Payne and Bradford agree that Sturgill is causing issues, and they sympathize with those affected. They said they would also be upset if it were their loved ones’ graves.
Holmes plans to speak with an attorney. “I want to get some legal advice to see where we stand and potentially pursue the civil route. My next step, if I can’t get some kind of relief, I’m going to have to have my whole family moved.” The disinterment process is not quick, easy, or inexpensive.
Taking another route, Gass reported that he and his wife are working on the paperwork needed to establish a cemetery on their home property.
Ryan noted that being buried on your own property requires documentation so that when the land is sold, relatives still have access to the grave. “It becomes an interesting question of who has legal right over that grave. If we’re going to bury somebody on their own personal land, we always recommend that you survey it off and dedicate it as a cemetery.”
Rumley and Robert Goff (commissioner for District 3) noted that they often receive calls and questions about small, private, family cemeteries. Goff said, “Burying family on your own property is all well and good, but no matter what happens, if you sell that property, you’ve got to tell people that there’s a cemetery there and people get access to it.”
At the time of publication, no further developments had been reported regarding Sturgill or the state of the cemetery.