A former San Francisco real estate lawyer and broker is embroiled in a land dispute that has the owners of a historic Northern California cemetery scrambling to find next of kin for more than a dozen people buried there more than a century ago.
Michael Pecherer bought a vineyard on the border of the Redwood Valley Cemetery in Mendocino County in 2014. He sued the cemetery owners in 2017, saying a fence enclosing the cemetery encroaches on his property and that the land likely contains several burials. But cemetery officials say the contested property has always been part of the burial ground, and it’s public land.
“This is not just a cemetery. It’s a pioneer cemetery. It’s the people who built Mendocino County,” said Mark Velasquez, an attorney with Best, Best & Krieger LLP, the firm representing the cemetery and its owners, the Redwood River Cemetery District.
Burials in the wooded two-acre cemetery in Redwood Valley began in the 1800s, if not earlier, and continued until about 1936, according to Dana Kornegay, office manager for the district. In 1952, the cemetery district acquired the burial ground, erected a fence around its borders, and began maintaining the property.
Pecherer bought the 20-acre vineyard next door in 2014 to realize a long-held dream of making wine, he said. The first time he visited the property, “I walked around on this property and something happened. It was mystical, honest to God,” he said.
Pecherer lived in San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s, and practiced law and operated as a real estate broker here until the 1990s, he said. He now works as a receiver and referee, a neutral party appointed by judges to assist in cases where real estate is being divided, and continues to work with courts in San Francisco. He lives in Orinda.
Not long after Pecherer bought the vineyard, he decided to trim back several oaks. Their trunks were on the cemetery’s side of the fence, but their branches shaded some of his vines. After he talked it over with a neighbor, the neighbor called upon a forester friend, who cut down the trees instead of trimming them, Pecherer said.
The cemetery district filed a criminal complaint with the Mendocino County District Attorney’s office. Pecherer was arrested and charged with cutting down the trees. Ultimately he settled the case, paying the cemetery district $83,000.41.
In 2016, deer began eating away at Pecherer’s grape vines. He hired a surveyor to help him determine where he could erect deer fencing. In the process, Pecherer says they discovered that a 15-by-100-foot strip of land on the southwestern part of the vineyard, fenced off and presumed to be part of the cemetery, was actually his property. More than that, it had a headstone on it and evidence of up to 16 more unmarked graves.
The headstone belongs to Samuel Hinkston, born in 1837 in Missouri, who came to California with his parents and siblings during the Gold Rush, worked as a farmer much of his life, and died in an almshouse in 1920, according to census records. A 1920 obituary from the Petaluma Daily Courier said Hinkston wanted to be buried in the Redwood Valley Cemetery.
Pecherer suspects more are buried nearby, evidenced by grave-shaped areas where soil has settled over the years, and by a handful of human teeth he found while working in the vineyard, he said.
After making these discoveries, Pecherer sued, seeking to reverse the settlement and resolve the ownership dispute. In his filings, Pecherer said he is seeking an injunction that would require the cemetery district “to disinter the body or bodies” in the contested area “and to reinter them in property owned by” the district.
In June, 2018, a Mendocino County Court judge dismissed the case, finding that the cemetery had been dedicated to the public long ago. In June, 2020, however, a California appeals court reversed the ruling and sent the case back to the trial court, saying that court filings didn’t establish whether the cemetery was legally dedicated to the public, though “it may be established when the facts are resolved.”
Now, the district and its attorneys are hoping to find next of kin for those buried in the cemetery, particularly on the disputed property, so they can speak up on behalf of their ancestors, Velasquez said. Hinkston never married and had no children, and the other burials remain unidentified, but descendants of those buried in the main part of the cemetery may still be helpful, he said. The names of more than 50 people buried there have been identified.
Pecherer sees the lawsuit as an effort to remove a “cloud on his title to the vineyard,” but Velasquez says it’s about something much bigger.
“This case is about respecting and honoring the deceased, protecting our local heritage,” Velasquez said. “It’s about protecting the community.”
Those who think they may have a relative buried in the cemetery are asked to contact Mark Velasquez at RVCLawsuit@bbklaw.com.