PITTSBORO – The former owner of four cemeteries has been returned to Mississippi to face six counts of violating state law with regard to funds for pre-need burial services.
Don Middleton, 65, had eluded Mississippi attorney general’s investigators for more than a year since criminal charges were filed against him and a warrant issued for his arrest in mid-2008.
“I’m glad they finally got him,” said Ellis Johnson of Wheeler, who has been a leading complainant against Middleton’s unethical practices. “I hope they get (James) Rogers, too, because the ownership is still in his name.”
Middleton – who owned Prentiss Memorial Gardens in Baldwyn, Liberty Memorial Park in Booneville, Pinecrest Memorial Park in Calhoun City and Sunset Gardens Memorial Park in Laurel – is being held in Calhoun County Jail, but faces charges in Prentiss, Calhoun and Jones counties.
He is accused of violating the state law requiring that at least 85 percent of pre-need funds be placed in a trust account.
The charges are classified as misdemeanors, so if convicted, Middleton faces a fine of up to $1,000 and jail time of up to one year, or both, for each of the counts.
Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann’s staff completed an investigation in late 2008 of complaints by dozens of people who had bought pre-need services but said their contracts were not being honored.
The investigation found that Middleton, of Henderson, N.C., and Rogers, of Birmingham, Ala., had converted trust funds for the properties to their own names, and little money was left in any of the trust accounts.
“We are pleased Don Middleton has finally been brought to Mississippi to face these charges and face his fellow citizens,” Hosemann said.
A meeting in Baldwyn in September 2007, which attracted about 200 people with complaints about their cemetery contracts, showed weaknesses in state law that would not protect people who might enter into similar contracts in the future.
Those concerns prompted Rep. Jerry Turner, R-Baldwyn, who attended the meeting and continued to hear from his constituents about the issue, to sponsor a bill that gives oversight of pre-need contracts and trust agreements to the secretary of state.
The law passed this year and took effect July 1.
“That’s great news – it tops off my vacation,” said Turner, reached while away in Colorado. “It’s time that some justice be brought regarding this bad business all over our state. This is only partial justice. Full justice would be full compensation to the people who have paid for these contracts.”
Because of incomplete records, the exact amount that should have been in the trust accounts could not be determined, secretary of state investigators found. However, they determined that almost $379,000 of contracts were sold for the four cemeteries and at least half of the funds were not accounted for.
“The secretary of state and I worked closely to protect any future contracts,” Turner said, “and what we crafted is some of the most comprehensive legislation in the United States with regard to pre-need services.”
Contact Lena Mitchell at (662) 287-9822 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lena Mitchell/NEMS Daily Journal