John Baker speaks outside his home on Johnson Road about the future of his cemetery.
By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter
CENTRALIA – The temporary management of a 10-acre cemetery in Centralia by a longtime friend of its owner ends now, after a court commissioner this week declined to grant an order to permanently ban owner John Baker from the premises.
Jennifer Duncan, an Adna-area resident, agreed to operate Greenwood Cemetery while Baker went to prison last year and while he was incarcerated, the state Funeral and Cemetery Board assisted Duncan with putting the operator’s license in her name.
Baker had granted Duncan a power of attorney to handle his affairs.
Baker, 68, was released in October and returned to his home adjacent to the cemetery.
Since then, relations between the two have deteriorated into allegations that he threatened to kill her and that she illegally sold off part of his land.
Duncan told Lewis County Superior Court Commissioner Tracy Mitchell during a hearing on Tuesday if the temporary order keeping Baker away from her and the cemetery wasn’t extended, she would walk away from care-taking of the cemetery.
The dead won’t get buried, Duncan said. “The community will suffer a disservice if that happens,” she said.
While Baker owns the more than a century-old graveyard, he’s no longer licensed to sell plots and make burials; Duncan is.
New burials are few and far between, with about 10 made last year, according to Duncan.
The cemetery, which sits off Johnson Road, has an estimated 10,000 inhabitants.
What the future holds for Greenwood Cemetery is anybody’s guess.
Even a spokesperson for the licensing arm of the cemetery board won’t speculate.
“(W)e can’t answer the question about what happens to the cemetery,” spokesperson Christine Anthony wrote in response to inquires after the court decision. “Baker owns the land and a licensed corporation must run the cemetery. That’s all we know at this point.”
The arrangement between Baker and Duncan began amicably, according to both.
Baker was jailed after an incident in which police were told he held a propane torch to an employee’s sweatshirt, blasted the garment with a shotgun and then pointed the firearm at the woman and two others individuals. Centralia police found methamphetamine in a tackle box in Baker’s closet.
Baker said he made a so-called Alford plea, and was sentenced to a year in prison.
Duncan, a career Army officer who said she’s known Baker for years, stepped up to help.
“We’ve been friends for 20 years,” Duncan said. “Just because he’s a crazy dude, doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a place in my heart.”
However, the 57-year-old said when she took on the responsibility of Greenwood Cemetery, she had no idea of what she was getting into.
Duncan said she found that Baker’s non-profit cemetery corporation wasn’t kept up to date and that his cemetery license had expired.
She needed $10,000 for Baker’s bail bondsman, and another $6,000 to $7,000 to pay his property taxes and other bills, and to make repairs to his cemetery lawn mower, she said.
She sold four acres of Baker’s vacant land to a local cemetery operator, Don Burbee, who agreed to help her, she said.
Duncan was guided through the process of reestablishing business’s affairs by the licensing office at the state. Even though she had the power of attorney for Baker, she said they told her she had to put it all in her name.
It’s not what she wanted, she said, but she has been a cemetery operator for almost two years now.
Baker, on the other hand, says he fully expected to take back his responsibilities as a cemetery owner and operator after returning home, but that Duncan ignored his revocation of the power of attorney.
Court documents and testimony in the courtroom on Tuesday, describe antagonism between the two that in June, resulted in a temporary protection order, keeping Baker at least 500 feet from Duncan, and from the cemetery.
Duncan wrote that Baker tried to poison her with orange juice, nearly took her head off with a scythe and sent her almost 450 text messages.
She asked the court to allow her new cemetery corporation sole use of a second house on the property (on Van Wormer Street) and make him hand over cemetery records.
“He chases cemetery patrons out with a shovel, screaming the most vile things at them, mostly four-letter words,” she wrote.
“Every time I loan him a piece of equipment, it breaks,” she wrote.
Four times times since July 1, Baker was arrested for violating the temporary protection order, for coming onto the cemetery grounds sometimes when Duncan was present and sometimes when she was not.
Baker disputes much of what his friend alleges, in particular that he tried to harm her with a scythe.
“I’d never hurt Jennifer,” Baker said. “You know if I were diabolical, I wouldn’t do it on a Sunday afternoon right in public.”
The alleged physical threats however weren’t even a topic of discussion when Commissioner Mitchell ruled on whether to extend the protection order.
Mitchell told the two on Tuesday she couldn’t find a legal basis to prevent Baker from going onto the cemetery property, which he owns.
Mitchell asked Duncan if she needed an anti-harassment order keeping Baker away from her personally, and Duncan said she didn’t if she isn’t operating the cemetery.
The commissioner extended the current order for 30 days, the time Duncan said she needs to wrap up obligations she’s made to cemetery clients.
“Really, it’s a relief for me, because I have my own work,” Duncan said when it was over.
She has a husband, children, a farm, and does contract work for the Department of Defense, she said.
Baker meanwhile says he’s had some “nibbles” regarding selling the cemetery. Also, he says there are other people who could be licensed to be the operator for him.
And he’s ready for a battle to get back the four acres he said are worth millions if used for cemetery plots.
Duncan says the writing is on the wall about how much longer Baker can run the cemetery.
During her time in charge, she had some patrons give her back the deeds to their grave sites and ask for their money back, she said.
A handful of caskets have been removed and buried elsewhere by families unhappy with Baker, she said.
Baker calls those personality conflicts, with patrons who don’t like his “flamboyant” style or his political views.
Whether the Funeral and Cemetery Board will issue him a license again is unknown.
Baker has owned and operated Greenwood since 1977, according to the board spokesperson.
His license expired in January of last year while he was locked up and a license was granted to Duncan the following June, according to spokesperson Anthony.
The license can’t simply be transferred back, according to Anthony, a new one would have to be applied for, with eligibility determined at that time.
Duncan contends in her court documents that the Funeral and Cemetery Board has investigated discrepancies of as much as $75,000 in Baker’s cemetery trust funds.
Anthony confirmed “an investigation” was conducted and is being reviewed by the state Attorney General’s Office.
Baker says he’s talked with the regulators about those issues and acknowledges a “lack of current bookkeeping”.
Would they give Baker back his license if he applied, the spokesperson was asked.
“I really can’t speculate on that,” Anthony wrote.