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New owner for area cemeteries

Friday, December 14, 2007

Obligations to the consumers will be addressed, AG says

SIKESTON -- Three Sikeston-area cemeteries which once belonged to a company accused of fraud in the bereavement industry have a new owner.

The agreement, announced Thursday by Attorney General Jay Nixon, will transfer assets of Mike Graham and Associates, including the Memorial Park and Garden of Memories Cemeteries in Sikeston and Forest Hill Memorial Gardens Cemetery in Morley, to Birk Enterprises of Jackson.

This agreement will address complaints by consumers who had paid Mike Graham and Associates for various items and services that were never delivered, according to Nixon.

"This agreement is a win for consumers and a win for the community," Nixon said in a press release. "We worked hard to find a new owner who would address the obligations that the defendants failed to meet, while also taking over these cemetery properties and turning them around. We are pleased to have found such a owner in Birk Enterprises."

Under the agreement, Birk Enterprises, owned by Dale Birk, will acquire all of Graham's assets related to the cemeteries including land, buildings, equipment and trust funds in exchange for agreeing to address the obligations to consumers undertaken but not met by Graham. Those obligations include providing headstones and vaults, conducting burials as promised, and maintaining the properties as expected by consumers who purchased plots.

In August 2005, Nixon obtained a preliminary injunction against Mike Graham and Associates in Scott County Circuit Court as part of "Operation Grave Concerns," a crackdown by the attorney general's office on fraud in the bereavement industry. It was alleged that Graham took payment from consumers for dozens of grave markers that were never delivered and sold space in a mausoleum in Rolla that had yet to be constructed.

Under that injunction, Graham and Associates ceased the sale of cemetery headstones, plots, vaults and other goods and services where prepayment is required.

As a service to the families, Scott County took over the operation of the cemetery at Morley while the city of Sikeston maintained the Memorial Park and Garden of Memories cemeteries until a buyer could be found.

City Manager Doug Friend said while city officials were happy to step in to address the maintenance problems following action by the attorney general, "we're as pleased as anyone can be that the sale has gone through and they are returning to the private sector."

"I'm equally proud that Scott County and Sikeston stepped up to the call," said Scott County Commissioner Dennis Ziegenhorn. "We had to face some unexpected expenses (due to the maintenance) but it was money well spent. We had an obligation to our citizens, just as they had an obligation to their loved ones buried there."

Ziegenhorn added he is pleased a local buyer who is familiar with the operations of the cemeteries was found.

Friend said the Sikeston's attorney has been working with the buyer's attorney for several months to ensure the city is reimbursed for money spent to maintain the cemetery while serving as temporary custodians.

Likewise, Ziegenhorn noted the county filed a lien for $5,707 on the property and that county officials expect to be reimbursed for their upkeep of the Morley cemetery.

Ziegenhorn said he expects the state to be more diligent in auditing companies which own cemeteries as a result of the problems experienced by families who did business with Mike Graham and Associates.

In the news release, Nixon emphasized that despite the agreement to secure new ownership of the properties, the litigation against Graham and Associates is not over. "We are committed to securing a similar deal for Ozark Memorial Cemetery in Rolla, and to continuing to hold Graham and Associates accountable for their misconduct," he said.

In the coming weeks and months, as Birk Enterprises takes over ownership and management of the properties, its owners and employees will work to address the problems caused by Graham and Associates.

The attorney general's office continues to pursue a permanent injunction against Graham and Associates as well as the payment of civil penalties, costs and other injunctive relief in the case.