Deadline nears to file claims at troubled cemetery

GREENVILLE — Former Greenlawn Memorial Gardens owner Steve Ragland was laid to rest in the late 1990s. His successors’ clients haven’t rested since.

After Ragland died, those who took control of the cemetery collected tens of thousands of dollars from people who prepaid for burial plots, grave markers, crypts and related items and services. According to court records, the cemetery’s new owners, including Ragland’s ex-wife and her new husband, failed to fulfill those contracts.

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood filed a consumer protection lawsuit in 2006 against GP Management Services, which oversaw Greenlawn; Ragland’s estate; his former wife, Gail Phillips; her current husband, Gasvy Phillips, better known as Ed; and two companies under their control, Final Plans and Greenlawn Memorial Gardens.

The case was filed June 30, 2006, eight years after Ragland died and dozens of people who had prepaid for burial plots, grave markers, vases, monuments and permanent cemetery care had filed complaints seeking restitution.

At the time, in Washington County Chancery Court, Ed Phillips testified that Greenlawn had outstanding pre-need contracts worth an estimated $500,000. Asked by Chancery Judge Marie Wilson how much the cemetery company had on hand, he replied, “Nothing.”

Greenlawn is a gravel-laned graveyard on the eastern outskirts of Greenville, where the deceased rest in Biblically named gardens: the Garden of the Last Supper, the Garden of the Resurrection and the like.

Robert Mortimer, who owns Mortimer Funeral Home Inc., has maintained the cemetery since its woes emerged in 2006.

“Bob has spent all kinds of money trying to rehabilitate that cemetery,” said Nick Crawford of the Crawford Law Firm in Greenville. “He’s been the only person maintaining it. He’s well suited for it and capable. I keep telling people not to worry. Bob Mortimer has resolved all these claims.”

To date that has amounted to more than 50 claims for restitution, ranging from $161 to $4,221, amounts they had prepaid to Greenlawn.

In her final judgment, issued July 2, Wilson held that the defendants in the civil suit had “unfairly taken advantage of and/or deceived consumers by advertising, contracting and receiving payments for goods and/or services and thereafter failing to provide the purchased goods and/or services and thereafter failing to refund the payments.”

Wilson ordered the defendants to pay a $42,500 civil penalty, $5,000 in court costs and restitution to their victims. Her final judgment found in favor of 52 people, to whom she awarded a total of $90,254.

Since then, more than a dozen other people have filed probate claims in chancery court, seeking restitution. The deadline to file probate claims is Monday. The claims, officials said, must include a copy of the contract or lease verifying the value of their plots or markers or vaults.

Mortimer is seeking title to Greenlawn, an acquisition supported by the attorney general’s office that could close as early as next month.

Crawford said the sums Mortimer has spent during the past seven years to maintain the cemetery grounds and resolve the claims against Ragland’s estate should more than cover the purchase price.

 

 

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