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Thursday, Nov. 27, 2014

Injunction filed in cemetery case

Friday, August 19, 2005

(Photo)
Darin McCall of Garden Lane Nursery mows at the Garden of Memories recently.
BENTON - A consent preliminary injunction against Mike Graham and Associates was obtained in the Scott County Circuit Court Thursday by Attorney General Jay Nixon as part of Operation Grave Concerns.

Mike Graham and Associates, a holding company based in Houston, Texas, that does business as Memorial Park Cemetery and Garden of Memories in Sikeston, Forest Hill Memorial Gardens in Morley, and Ozark Memorial Cemetery in Rolla, allegedly took money for dozens of grave markers that were never delivered and sold space in a mausoleum in Rolla that has yet to be constructed.

Ranging "from Sikeston to Clay County, from Springfield to St. Louis," Nixon's Operation Grave Concerns is the result of investigations around the state targeting pre-paid monuments and pre-need funeral plans. "Our cases involve almost 500 victims and approximately $800,000 in damages," Nixon said Thursday.

"We've had lawyers and investigators who have spent a great deal of time on this," he said. "It's a deeply concerning area for all of us."

Under the injunction, Mike Graham and Associates agreed to cease the sale of cemetery headstones, plots, vaults and other goods and services where prepayment is required. Nixon is also seeking a permanent injunction to require the defendant to provide restitution or services worth approximately $260,000 to more than 100 consumers.

"We have no comments whatsoever," said an unidentified spokesperson for Mike Graham and Associates when contacted about the legal actions.

In addition to the action in Scott County, Nixon filed a broad range of legal actions across the state including the filing of felony criminal charges in three cases.

"Consumers purchase pre-need funeral plans to have the assurance that these arrangements are paid for and taken care of ahead of time," Nixon said. "What we found in our investigations are numerous occasions where the customers' payments were not put in specific trust accounts, as required by law, but instead were diverted for other uses, leaving shortfalls to pay for the funerals when they are needed.

"Pre-need funerals have been a $1.6 billion industry in Missouri over the last 20 years," Nixon said. "Adherence to the laws and regulations governing pre-

need funerals is vital to protect consumers. Today's filings serve notice that we will take appropriate action when we believe fraud has occurred."

Fraud in the pre-need funeral and pre-paid headstone industry present a "serious and ongoing challenge," according to Nixon. "We are not at the end of the line of action we will bring. ... There are consumer protection police on the beat."

The case in Scott County was among the more recent investigations into consumer fraud in the funeral industry having been initiated about three months ago following local media coverage of customers' problems at the Garden of Memories, according to Nixon. The investigation in Dent County began about a year ago.

Due to the wide geographic area included in this sweep, nearly a dozen print, radio and television reporters from around the state were linked by conference call for the announcement Thursday afternoon in addition to reporters at Nixon's office. "This is a first for us," said Scott Holste, communications director for the attorney general.

Nixon advised calling 1-800-392-8222, his office's consumer protection hotline, "if people have questions or they feel like they've been ripped off."

He also advised those making pre-need funeral arrangements and paying in advance for headstones to use payment methods other than cash as "cash payments are very difficult to track."

Nixon said he hopes the broad range of action taken Thursday will send a strong message througout the state.

"The loss of a loved one is a time when we are the most vulnerable, and are most in need of someone we can trust," he said. "These operators took advantage of grieving families in their time of loss. It is something we cannot and will not let go unchecked."