SHAMOKIN — For 160 years, a 20-acre parcel of land overlooking the city has served as a pristine, quiet place of solitude where many past local residents, poor and prominent alike, have been laid to rest.
The Shamokin Cemetery, which has survived decades of weathering and spates of vandalism, is now facing perhaps its greatest challenge — neglect.
In recent years, the cemetery, which is privately owned by the Shamokin Cemetery Co., has become the sight of unsightly tall grass, weeds and small trees covering a large number of headstones.
Roger Alleman, a Vietnam War veteran and adjutant of American Legion Post 73, said he is sickened by what’s become of the cemetery and the “absence of respect” shown toward many of the 751 veterans and service members who are buried there.
“I hate it. It’s something that has to be fixed,” he commented.
For decades, Alleman has delivered American flags, provided by the Northumberland County Veterans Administration Office, to volunteers who place them on the grave sites of the country’s heroes.
Coal Township VFW Post 317 Commander John Schenewerk added, “What’s currently happening up there to all of the those headstones and gravesites, of both veterans and lay people alike, is disgusting.”
Perhaps the most iconic portion of the cemetery is the Soldiers Circle, located at the northeast corner of the cemetery. Laid out in four concentric rings of small headstones and flags surrounding a large monument, the sacred area is the final resting place of 242 veterans and service members from the Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Korean and Vietnam wars.
It was constructed in 1871 by the Grand Army of the Republic. At its center, the circle houses a large granite stone that was brought back from the location of the Battle of Gettysburg. Many of the names of the people buried there are no longer visible on the headstones.
The Perz family, who has relatives buried in the circle, visited the cemetery earlier this summer and was shocked at the conditions.
“Look around at this mess. It’s not being properly taken care of. We drove all the way from Eastlake, Ohio, and we get here and see this,” said 85-year-old Ruth (Boyd) Perz, whose family played a prominent role in Shamokin’s history. “It’s a beautiful cemetery and contains so much local history. I’m hopeful that it can be cleaned up and improved.”
She also expressed concerns about the location of cemetery records and the conditions of “tattered” American flags in the Circle.
Perz’s great-grandfather was Hugh Boyd, a Civil War veteran and whose father was one of the original settlers of Boydtown and a founding member of the former Trinity Episcopal Church.
“We have about 50 members of the Boyd family buried in the Shamokin Cemetery,” said Perz. “I give a total of $300 annually in separate donations of $100 each to the Shamokin, Mount Carmel and Centralia cemeteries. This is the only one that looks like this.”
Perz indicated that she had sent an annual donation of $100 endorsed to Dave Donmoyer prior to his death.
“When my check was returned because Mr. Donmoyer passed away, I contacted City Hall and was informed that there was a committee overseeing the upkeep of the cemetery. I was told to write a check made payable to the City of Shamokin and it would be forwarded to the cemetery committee. The check, however, was not cashed until at least 6 to 8 months later,” she recalled.
The cemetery has a rich and storied history dating back to 1859, when a group of local citizens banded together under the title of The Shamokin Cemetery Co. and petitioned the courts for a charter. On Aug. 13, 1859, the petition was granted and the company was organized.
On April 28, 1860, the first officers of company were elected. They included Charles Helfenstein, president; Joseph Bird, vice president; P. Bird, secretary; and William Marshall, treasurer. On May 12, 1860, company by-laws were adopted, and in 1874 permanent by-laws were established.
The cemetery opened its gates to the public in that same year of 1860. Today, there are over 16,000 souls buried in the cemetery in a total of 23 large blocks, which are subdivided into ranges and individual lots.
There is a large mausoleum located in the cemetery and four smaller ones, which are privately-owned. In 1916, The Central Mausoleum Co. of Carlisle built the large mausoleum in Block 11 of the cemetery. At the time of its construction, it was the largest in the state, housing 160 crypts with a chapel and storage accommodations.
Last year, a large tree fell, blocking the front of one of the privately-owned mausoleums — the Wilson Krieger mausoleum — located near the main entrance steps at Grant and High streets. A recent visitor was appalled that the tree remained in the same position for several months.
“We took several photographs up there. It’s hard to believe it’s come to this,” said Anne (Neely) Chamberlin, who currently resides in Maggie Valley, North Carolina. “As I approached the entrance gates, my heart sank. I carefully walked up the steps and observed numerous pieces of a fallen, stately white birch tree on the ground and left blocking the steps and path to our family’s mausoleum.”
Chamberlin explained that the Krieger mausoleum was built in 1872, when Alice Maud Krieger died at the age of 11. Her great-great uncle, Wilson Krieger, born on Feb. 22, 1849, was a pioneer resident of Shamokin and a founding member of the First Presbyterian Church. Wilson married Annie Neely, a Scottish immigrant and another of Shamokin’s pioneer residents.
Chamberlin said it was heartbreaking to view her family’s mausoleum entrance blocked by the tree. She pointed out that numerous other headstones were also covered by pieces of the felled tree.
She added, “I’m tired of visiting the Shamokin that I love and seeing the Shamokin Cemetery, so rich in history, continue to deteriorate year after year.”
William Milbrand, president of The Shamokin Cemetery Co., said the company is in financial distress and in need of a full-time caretaker.
“Right now, we’re able to pay our monthly bills, but nothing more. We get roughly $1,000 per quarter from an irrevocable trust comprised of money paid into a perpetual care trust fund, but we need to hire a permanent caretaker and come up with a way of paying for that care on a regular basis.”
Milbrand expressed desire to maintain the cemetery, but noted frustration with a lack of regular help.
“The public says they’re interested, and some people will come up and cut and trim for a few hours, but that’s it,” he said. “I started working at the cemetery when I was 14 years old. I care about it, but I just can’t do everything myself. It should be a position that someone needs to be paid to maintain.”
Mlbrand said the company spent $20,000 last year to hire Brookside Landscaping to perform a week’s worth of work in response to public outcry.
According to Milbrand, former company president Dave Donmoyer kept all cemetery records at his home following vandalism and a fire at the cemetery. When Donmoyer passed away in 2017, someone allegedly took a number of the records and put them up for estate sale without communicating with the cemetery board.
Milbrand said he acquired some of the records for safe keeping.
“I’m not sure how many names are recorded. The book was maintained from 1860-1992, but from 1992 we’re not sure,” he said of recent burials.
Milbrand said there is concern with a lack of board meetings and procedures.
“We haven’t had a meeting of the cemetery board since Dave died,” Milbrand said. “I’ve said many times, and still feel, that we should be holding regular meetings.”
As for who is currently in charge of managing the cemetery’s assets and accountable for its finances, Milbrand simply stated that the treasurer of the company handles any payments. It was not made clear, however, as to whether or not payments of cemetery funds needed to be discussed and approved by the majority of board members at a formal meeting.
Milbrand also indicated that if someone wants to volunteer their time and services in an effort to help cleanup and maintain the cemetery, they may contact either himself or the board via the email address listed on cemetery’s website.
The website is at www.shamokincemetery.com. It contains history, maps and contact information. The contact name listed on the website is Tracy (Eveland) Donnelly along with the email address of firstname.lastname@example.org. Written correspondence may be addressed to: The Shamokin Cemetery, P.O. Box 362, Shamokin, PA 17872.
SUNBURY — Brightening neighborhoods through the rehabilitation of dilapidated properties is an objective of the city’s public nuisance list.
City council regularly updates the list of vacant, blighted properties that may be acquired through eminent domain, if owners fail to take action to correct the nuisance condition.
Eric Long, a code enforcement officer, said there were 41 properties appearing on the nuisance list in July, but several owners are taking corrective actions in an effort to remove their buildings from the list.
“We are not out there to tear down buildings; we want to people to rehab them,” Long said. “Ultimately, they may have to come down, if there are safety issues, such as properties that are falling down.”
The method employed by Sunbury has caught the attention of Shamokin City Council, which in June entered into a cooperative agreement with the Northumberland County Housing Authority to start using eminent domain as a blight tactic.
Shamokin Mayor John Brown and Councilman Scott Roughton, director of public safety, met with Sunbury officials to learn more about the state’s Eminent Domain Code.
Run-down buildings in Shamokin have typically been purchased by the city through county repository sales and then razed with grant money.
“Eminent domain works nice for properties that the taxes are paid current on, (but) you don’t have the opportunity to purchase off a tax list because they never make it there,” Brown said. “This is a way to say, ‘We are not going to tolerate the property being in this condition.’”
Shamokin is already considering using eminent domain on at least two dilapidated properties, one of which is owned by someone in the Middle East, but pays taxes, according to Roughton.
Shamokin and the county housing authority will be assisted by Sunbury law firm Apfelbaum-Kula, which provides legal services for the county housing authority and Sunbury Redevelopment Authority, the latter which suggests properties be added to Sunbury’s nuisance list.
Long said the Sunbury code enforcement office, council and the redevelopment authority, through its solicitor Brianna Apfelbaum Kula, each play a role in the eminent domain process, but have a common goal of alleviating blight.
To be considered for Sunbury’s nuisance list, Long explained that a property must generally be in violation of at least one code and have increased citations. When an owner receives a third citation, the property is submitted to the redevelopment authority and Kula for review, who may recommend to council that it be added to the nuisance list.
When a property is designated as a nuisance, the owner receives a notice warning that failure to remove the nuisance condition within 30 days may result in Sunbury declaring the property to be blighted.
According to state law, for purposes of acquiring a single unit property by eminent domain, a condemner is authorized to declare a property blighted if it meets one of 12 criteria, including it being “declared a public nuisance” or designated “unfit for human habitation.”
Long said if an owner does not rectify the nuisance condition or submit an action plan within 30 days, the city can start eminent domain proceedings.
Once Sunbury decides to use eminent domain to remove the blighted condition, a “declaration of taking” is filed in the Northumberland County Court of Common Pleas. For instance, the city on June 28 filed declarations for properties at 140-142 N. Fifth St., 242 Church St., 416-418 S. Fourth St., and 321 Chestnut St. that were placed on the list Aug. 27.
Properties taken through eminent domain can be demolished and the land used for public use or, if the property is not demolished, sold to a buyer who is willing to bring the property up to code.
“On average, we are talking two to three years,” Long said of how long it usually takes for a property to go through the entire process. “(Brianna Kula) can run into all kind of stuff on her side, such as subpoenas and notifications.”
According to Long, an owner can be cited at any time, without prior warning, for code violations once their property is on the nuisance list. If property work needs to be done, a request is given to the business administrator, who passes the information along to the city’s department of public works.
The property owner is billed for the work, which is based on standardized fees and rates. A running tab begins, if the owner does not pay within 30 days, and a municipal lien is placed on the property when it reaches $500.
Long, who began working with eminent domain code about two years ago, said the code enforcement office and redevelopment authority have fined-lined procedures for maintaining paperwork to expedite the process of converting a nuisance property into a rehabilitated home.
“All the departments are working together to keep (the blighted properties) rolling forward,” he said. “We have to be proactive on the city’s side, and have good, working relationship between the departments to make this happen.”
Although Brown said eminent domain is a “scary thing” because the government is seizing private property, he also realizes it can be another tool when other tactics are ineffective.
“If the taxes are paid up on (a property) and the owner doesn’t respond to citations; what other options does the city have, except for filing for eminent domain and taking it?” he asked.
Brown noted that over the past few years the city has added weapons in its fight against blight, including the police department issuing criminal charges and the street department submitting bills for work performed on dilapidated properties.
Roughton added, “I think (eminent domain) is another avenue we can use to get properties that are a problem; where people are not responding to anything we give them, whether it’s citations or criminal charges.”
EXTON — A Northumberland County constable from Zerbe Township has been charged by a Chester County detective for allegedly using his elected position and authority for personal profit.
Michael Robel, 58, of 108 Birch Road, is facing felonies of bribery, conflict of interest and accepting improper influence and a misdemeanor of statement of financial interests.
Bernard Sean Martin, of the Chester County District Attorney’s Office, claims that Robel used his law enforcement position for private security interests related to the Mariner East Pipeline project and failed to report his $27,995 income for 2018, as required by the state Public Official and Employee Ethics Act.
Also charged as a result of the investigation was Chester County Constable Kareem Johnson, 47, of Coatesville.
Records show both Johnson and Robel were subcontracted to work security by a Harrisburg company doing business as Raven Knights. The constables were required and asked to provide copies of their state constable certification cards and firearm cards as a condition of employment.
Robel was arraigned in front of Magisterial District Judge John Bailey on $25,000 unsecured bail. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. Aug. 29 at the district office in Exton.
“We cannot have elected law enforcement officials hiring themselves out and using their public positions for personal profit,” Charles Gaza, Chester County district attorney chief of staff, was quoted in a press release. “It undermines the integrity and independence of law enforcement and our government.”
In December 2018, Martin began to investigate criminal activity related to the construction of the pipeline by Energy Transfer and subsidiaries Sunoco Logistics and Sunoco Pipeline. During the investigation, information was developed that state constables were being hired to use their authority while patrolling the pipeline.
The investigation revealed that West Whiteland Township police detailed “numerous” contacts with security personnel who identified themselves as state constables to township officers. At least one resident who had an easement with the pipeline company reported individuals on his property who were armed and identified by a Sunoco subcontractor as state constables.
The complaint states that on Jan. 21 Robel approached Martin, who was investigating a subsidence caused by a sinkhole. Robel, who was wearing a “patrol-style” duty belt with a firearm, allegedly displayed his state constable badge and informed the detective, who was wearing plainclothes, that he had to move his vehicle that was parked on a public street.
Martin identified himself as a detective and responded that he would move the vehicle once finished.
During another contact later that day, Robel told the detective he was employed as a subcontractor for Sunoco and that the company wanted certified constables in uniform as private security for the project.
Martin concluded that Robel used his badge of authority as an elected state constable for private pecuniary gain, used his authority to interfere with the rights of people in public places and failed for report his income on interest forms.
In a January, District Attorney Tom Hogan said his office had opened a criminal investigation into who bears legal responsibility for the sinkholes and was also attempting to determine who hired out-of-county constables and authorized them to “act as if they had legal authority” in Chester County.
Hogan stated this week that there is “a troubling aspect to this investigation” in that the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is charged with protecting residents, but “has retained criminal defense lawyers to represent them in this investigation, and have insisted all communications go through those lawyers.”
“In almost 30 years working in the criminal justice system, I have never seen a state of federal agency retain criminal defense lawyers to communicate with the prosecutors that the agencies were supposed to be helping,” Hogan stated this week in a press release. “It raises questions for the public about what exactly is going on with the Mariner East Pipeline and Pennsylvania’s government. Gov. (Tom) Wolf needs to answer these questions.
Constables are public officers elected or appointed to their position. Constables are elected at the municipal level; however, state law governs constables.
A constable is an officer empowered to carry out the business of the statewide district court system by serving warrants of arrest, mental health warrants, transporting prisoners, service of summons, complaints and subpoenas, and enforcing protection from abuse orders as well as orders of eviction and judgement levies.
A Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas judge may remove a constable for acts of oppression or misfeasance, which is defined as a breach of a positive statutory duty or performing a discretionary act with an improper or corrupt motive.