Hampton, Va. - Walking through the knee-high grass and weeds, it’s hard to believe Oakland Cemetery is a place meant to honor the dead.
Marquita Latta calls herself the guardian of Oakland Cemetery, a title she takes on because no one else will.
“What do you think when you look at this? It makes you want to cry,” Latta said.
It sits along East Pembroke Avenue in Hampton.
“How can people ride by here every day, in the middle of the city and not say ‘wow this isn`t good?'” She says.
Oakland Cemetery has been open since the start of the Civil War in 1861. There are over 4,000 people buried in marked and unmarked graves there, dating from the 1800's up through the present time.
Many of those buried there are veterans, like Marquita’s grandfather.
“This was my first funeral I went to. This was my dad`s father. He was military.” She said.
But other veterans aren’t respected.
“The first time I saw this, it was horrifying. “ Latta continues.
The approximately 6-acre cemetery is privately-owned, but the owners have abandoned the property, leaving it full of overgrown grass, weeds and damaged graves.
Some of the gravestones are buried sideways against neighboring gravestones, some are hidden in the grass, and some of them don't have headstones at all.
Several years ago, Marquita found these military issued headstones stacked together, dumped at the back of the property.
She doesn`t even know if these vets are buried here and if so where.
“These people served our country, and this is how they`re treated,“ Latta said.
The owners of Oakland Estates LLC, Allen Simmons and his wife Frances Simmons, have abandoned their property.
They currently owe more than $35,000 in back taxes to the city and another $6,000 in court fees for not maintaining the grounds.
And the couple has made it clear that they want nothing to do with the cemetery.
In 2005, court records show the Simmons tried to give the property to the Commonwealth, but the state would not accept it.
The city says they can't force the Simmons to take care of the property or pay their bills, because they can't find them.
So NewsChannel 3 took action to find them. The Simmons have since moved to Florida, according to court documents.
We called the number listed, but there was no answer.
Then, we went to Gloucester, where we learned Allen Simmons’ step-daughter lived.
She wasn’t there, but her son was. He gave us his mother’s number.
But, no one answered.
Citizens of Hampton need to step up to fix Oakland, because clearly Hampton Mayor George Wallace will not.
“Let me say this again this is not a city related issue. It`s not a city problem,” Wallace said.
But, it’s a major problem for city residents with loved ones at Oakland—and sadly at so many other Hampton graveyards.
According to city data, out of the 74 cemeteries in Hampton, only nine receive constant care.
Graveyards established after the late 90’s were required to have a trust fund. This means if owners abandoned it, there would be a pot of money left to make sure the grass was cut.
Meanwhile, you can see what happens to the grass at historical graveyards, like Oakland.
"I`m not sure if they truly comprehend that there is no perpetual care. It`s never going to be.” Latta says.
So if the city won't help and the owners don't want it, who will care for Oakland and give these vets the respect they deserve?
That's where the volunteers stepped in.
Every three months, groups that include active duty and vets take action to clean up.
"A lot of important people are buried in this cemetery. The fact that we weren`t seeing a volunteer effort from other organizations was kind of shocking," says Marlon Hackett, president of the Langley Air Force Sergeants Association. They are in charge of organizing the quarterly clean ups.
He found six military grave markers most shocking.
"When we saw that, that`s when our antennas went up and we definitely wanted to get involved," says Hackett.
They are working with the Missing in America Project to find out where the tombstones are supposed to be laid. In the meantime, they are being put against a tree.
"There are some things that cannot be fixed, will never be able to be fixed, but by working on this here and now as a community and all these organizations, we have a prayer, we have a chance to make a difference," says Hackett.
A group will be heading to the cemetery on Monday, September 7th at 8:00 a.m. to provide care to the property -- cutting grass and cleaning up. If you'd like to volunteer your time, come on out! Bring weed eaters, lawn mowers and any other items that could help out!