Cemetery fraud sentence criticized

BALDWYN – Lots of talk and few tangible results are frustrating Ellis Johnson of Wheeler.
Johnson has been a key complainant urging state officials to investigate and prosecute fraud at Prentiss Memorial Gardens in Baldwyn and Liberty Memorial Park in Booneville.
After a year during which property owner Don Middleton eluded Mississippi attorney general’s investigators, he was apprehended and returned to Mississippi in October to face charges.
On Tuesday Middleton was found guilty in Prentiss County Justice Court on two counts of failure to file cemetery records. He was sentenced to six months on each count, to be served consecutively, and fined $900 on each count, for a total of $1,800.
“They charge people more than that for not having insurance on their car,” Johnson said. “They just haven’t gone far enough.”
Middleton faces similar charges in Calhoun and Jones counties for violating Mississippi Code Section 41-43-38, according to information provided by the attorney general’s office when he was arrested.
The charges are classified as misdemeanors, so Middleton could have received a fine of up to $1,000 and jail time of up to one year, or both, for each of the counts.
“We’ve had all those people file papers with the secretary of state’s office telling what they paid for lots and services, but some of those people are dying and their families still having to pay it all over again,” Johnson said. “In Tennessee there was a case like this, and they made those owners make all the people’s services good. I don’t know why Mississippi can’t do more.”
Secretary of state staff completed an investigation in late 2008 of complaints by dozens of people who had bought pre-need services who said their contracts were not being honored.
The investigation found that 65-year-old Middleton, of Henderson, N.C., and James Rogers, of Birmingham, had converted trust funds for the properties to their own names, and there was little money left in any of the trust accounts, although the law requires that at least 85 percent of pre-need funds be placed in a trust account.
Additional properties owned by Middleton included Pinecrest Memorial Park in Calhoun City and Sunset Gardens Memorial Park in Laurel.
Problems at Prentiss Memorial Gardens continue, Johnson said.
“People from the secretary of state’s office were up here a few weeks ago and I gave them seven or eight new names of people who bought at that cemetery from someone claiming to be the owner and skipped out on them,” he said. “There’s still lots of questions, and it don’t look like anybody in authority is willing to help us.”

Contact Lena Mitchell at (662) 287-9822 or lena.mitchell@djournal.com.

Lena Mitchell/NEMS Daily Journal