By Lena Mitchell/NEMS Daily Journal
BOONEVILLE – A Prentiss County grand jury has indicted the owner of Oaklawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Booneville on two felony counts of failing to properly fund pre-need burial trusts.
Wayne Hight was arraigned Tuesday in Prentiss County Circuit Court, pleaded not guilty, and posted a $10,000 bond. If convicted, Hight could face up to 10 years in prison on each count.
An investigation continues but no charges have been filed in connection with Hight-owned Forrest Memorial Park in Corinth.
The charges were announced in Tupelo Thursday by Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann and District Attorney Trent Kelly, whose offices worked together on the case.
Hosemann’s office also filed a civil lawsuit in Prentiss County for about $500,000 against Wayne Hight, Nancy Hight and Brad Hight, seeking to recover funds to place in the cemetery trusts and also to handle upkeep on the two cemeteries. The amount for Oaklawn was $167,760 and for Forrest Memorial Park was $305,761.
“We take complaints of a pre-need funeral provider misappropriating funds very seriously,” Hosemann said. “It was important to these individuals not to leave a burden on their children when they died and it was devastating to take funds from people with limited financial ability.”
The district attorney’s office presented the case to the grand jury based on evidence gathered by the secretary of state’s office and the Prentiss County Sheriff’s Office.
Prentiss County Chancery Court also was petitioned for permission to place the cemeteries, which have been in receivership for about a year, up for bid at public auction.
Two other cemeteries in Booneville and Baldwyn were placed in receivership with the secretary of state’s office in 2010 after similar irregularities were uncovered, and the secretary of state’s office found buyers for both.
“We need to be out of the cemetery business,” Hosemann said. “We’ll ask the bidders for economic assistance for those affected.”
In 2009, the Mississippi Legislature passed a law giving the secretary of state’s office more oversight in the sale of pre-need contracts.
The law requires that licensed pre-need providers, which must be cemeteries or funeral homes, must report to chancery court as well as the secretary of state and raises the penalty for violations from $5,000 to $10,000.
Funds established after July 1, 2009, also must place $10 for each pre-need contract sold into a fund to pay claims for insolvent cemeteries.