(Editor’s note: Although this article involves Aaron Benziger, a distant cousin of the author, we have strived to keep this story balanced with journalistic standards.)
Cemeteries are normally tranquil resting places for the dead. But in Ceres, the cemetery was recently an unlikely battleground involving a private security firm, the Ceres Police Department and some members of the public.
The conflicts left a security firm losing its contract with Ceres Memorial Park on Thursday.
Nearly six months ago, the cemetery board contracted with Innovative Private Security of Winton, to keep an eye on the park during the evenings before park closing and on weekends. Security would, voted a majority on the board, help battle reports of thefts of purses from cars, gang members speeding or spinning donuts, and occasional vandalism. The security firm, however, complained last week that Ceres Police have not been satisfactorily taking care of calls for service.
The board fired the company at a contentious meeting last week.
Innovative’s owner Aaron Benziger, a former Merced County Sheriff’s deputy, said that when he encountered troublemakers – usually gang members – who didn’t abide by his request to stop drinking alcohol, partying or playing loud music, he was met with open defiance. When they failed to comply, he said, he and his staff has met with responses like “F--- you, call the police.” When Benziger has called the police to have them escorted off the property for trespassing – the park is privately owned – officers didn’t do their job, he said. He said sergeants and officers have belittled him or his officers, dispatchers have hung up on him, and sometimes they don’t even send out an officer nor call him back.
“They do not escort them off the property or even stay around to ensure they do so,” said Benziger. “The people continue to antagonize, confront, cuss out guards, so we call the cops back. Then they belittle the guards for calling.”
Top officials at Ceres Police have met with Benziger but they say he is unreasonable and even told Police Chief Brent Smith how to do his job in an abrasive manner.
Lt. Chris Perry said the firm’s heavy-handed approach was the problem.
“We get out there and we’re faced with like four people, who have their car parked legally with the window down and the music’s on and it’s not really loud, and they’re standing next to their dead person’s gravesite, and they might have a couple of beers or something like that, but they’re mourning,” said Perry. “And yeah, they’re wearing red shirts and red shoe laces … he may be a gang member but he has just as much right to mourn a dead person than anybody else does. It’s not illegal to be a gang member. Let’s say this (dead) guy was a gang member; he’s still somebody’s son or brother or friend and so if they want to stand over his gravesite and pour a little beer on it – like that’s how they’re mourning – then the security is going all crazy, basically.”
Perry added that on one call-out, police were called to handle older Hispanic people playing brass instruments.
“Big deal,” Perry told the Courier. “Let these people do this stuff. Let them do it for their 10 minutes and then leave.”
Perry said he, Lt. Rick Collins and Chief Brent Smith have all met with cemetery representatives to mediate the situation. “I’ll tell you exactly what the problem is here,” said Lt. Perry. “It’s Aaron and his wife.”
Adora Benziger had patrolled the park to help save salary costs with her husband’s business. The mother of two small boys said on that on Sunday, June 28, she informed a party that was getting ready to set up a mariachi band that live bands are not allowed because loud music can be disruptive to the serene nature of the park. She handed one man a list of rules and advised him that ice chests were also not allowed. The man replied, “Really? I’ve been doing it every year,” but Adora explained that her firm was relatively new and hired to enforce the rules. She drove off to watch from a distance. The men unloaded equipment – including a tuba – in defiance of her request. Benziger returned to ask them again to stop and a woman replied, “You call the f---ing cops, we’re going to do it anyway.”
Benziger did call police, who came out and spoke to the party. The group slowly began to disband, except for the two originals who remained over 30 minutes later, and defied Benziger.
“They wanted to break the rules and get away with it,” she said. “If they (the police) would have stayed the first time and made sure everybody left, none of this would have happened.”
Sgt. Pat Sullivan came out on the second call. Adora said that Sullivan berated her and advised her that in his 33 years with CPD, he hasn’t encountered the levels of problems at the cemetery until Innovative Security was hired. Sullivan showed her the MDT that showed multiple calls for service since Innovative Security took over. Sullivan told her to not call police unless they had someone in custody or wanted somebody arrested.
That advice, she said, contradicted another officer’s advice, given on a prior call regarding disruptive visitors, for security to refrain from touching anyone and avoid arresting anyone.
The cold reception caused Adora to refrain from calling the police later in the day about a man she found drunk in the cemetery. His presence was scaring one woman who was visiting a grave, she said.
Aaron Benziger said the cemetery, which is privately owned, has rules for conduct. Employees and security have a right to ask visitors to comply with the rules or leave. When they don’t, they called police.
Cemetery manager Clay Guzman felt the Benzigers were justified in staying on top of problems.
“If we don’t keep a handle on this, it will blow up in our face,” said Guzman. He said unauthorized bands tend to attract a crowd and then alcohol consumption and more disruptive behavior.
“The bands don’t play for 10 minutes,” said Guzman. “They play for hours on end.”
“The only times it happens are when we’re not here (when the office is closed),” said Guzman.
Guzman feels security is warranted, saying homeless routinely sleep in the park and drunks make people feel uncomfortable.
“We had a guy out here the other day in his underwear,” said Guzman.
Aaron Benziger said he handled most problems without calling police. He said nine out of 10 requests to comply resulted in cooperation. He said his firm only called police when defiance was met.
“If we were to call the cops for every single thing we had to deal with out here, we would have them just as long as we are here,” said Aaron. “Because we are dealing with those friends of friends of friends. We don’t call the cops unless they say, ‘Screw you, we’re not going to listen. Call the cops.’ At that point, we’ve already been instructed, back away and let the cops deal with it.”
A check with Ceres dispatch revealed that the firm called police for service nine times this year.
“None of the calls have amounted to anything – not one single call,” said Lt. Perry. “We haven’t made any arrests or anything.
Before Thursday’s contract termination, Lt. Perry said Benziger was “missing his objective. He’s out there to make sure people aren’t defacing tombstones or make sure there are no actual real crimes occurring in there, like rapes or something like that.”
Perry accused Benziger of “taking advance” of the cemetery board by convincing them that their security contract is warranted by “coming up with all these little things.”
Chief of Police Brent Smith said the issue is tricky one because it involves the burial place of thousands. Kicking people out of a cemetery, he said, is a “last resort.”
“We go there and evaluate each of the circumstances from our point of view and we just have not been able to put together some of their concerns are,” said Smith. “It’s made it difficult for us to act and make people leave over concerns that the security officers have.”
At a contentious board meeting on Thursday morning, Cemetery board President Brian Carlin and Benziger had a sharp exchange. Benziger accused Carlin of siding with friends in the police department and not caring about the problems of the park.
“We’ve had more trouble since we’ve hired you,” Carlin told Benziger.
“That’s incorrect sir,” replied Benziger. “We have prevented so many problems out here.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” retorted Carlin.
When Benziger said he prevented a suicide at the park, Carlin answered: “That’s not my problem.”
Carlin, who didn’t vote to hire any security firm, faulted Benziger’s approach over “little petty stuff” and the board for not giving him clear instructions on how to handle disturbances.
“Things could be handled in a more public relations type manner,” said Carlin.
The board then went into executive session to discuss the contract.
In the case of the brass playing mourners, Carlin said Benziger should have explained that mariachi bands are not allowed unless at a service, but also finished up by “playing a song or two and then that’s it … since you’ve already set up. You can do a lot more with a little understanding than going out there with an iron fist and getting the police involved.”
Carlin said the firm has gone too far in some cases, taking down license plate numbers of vehicles entering the park. Benziger said that practice ended when it became too much.
“We can’t keep calling ‘wolf, wolf, wolf,’” said Carlin. “By the time we really do have a problem out here, the police are not going to respond.”
One problem that persists, Carlin said, is visitors are failing to lock their cars when visiting graves.
“We’ve got signs up there to warn people to lock their cars because we’ve had homeless people come by and steal their purses out of their car while they’re down on their hands and knees arranging flowers or something on the grave. To me that’s a problem. Every cemetery has that problem.”
Board member Charles Sammons has been supportive of the presence of a security firm.
“When we started burying gang members out here, then we started having problems,” said Sammons. “It’s not just here.”
In the Winton cemetery, where Benziger also provides security, he found one blue gang member was “tearing apart” the grave of a red gang member.
“This happens in cemeteries everywhere,” he said.