Greener pastures at Green Acres since probe

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 24, 2010

In one sense, everything has changed at Green Acres Memorial Park in the year since the State of Mississippi put owners of the cemetery under a legal microscope to right the cemetery’s financial ship.

Burials have continued in seemingly serene calm at the 15-acre site — with more confidence in years that graves will be properly marked and maintained. Discounts are offered to open and close graves, and to those who paid long ago but must pay again for stone markers and other merchandise, said Harry Sharp, the state-appointed receiver for Green Acres, who has operated the cemetery out of Duff Green Mansion since last spring.

“We’re not selling anything pre-need,” Sharp said. “We can sell pre-need lots, but we don’t have a license to sell pre-need merchandise.”

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Shoddy maintenance and damaged grave markers that marked Green Acres in the recent past have given way to a regular work crew of four, a new water line and about $1,000 in new equipment to mow grass and level dirt. Finances are looking up, Sharp said, saying continued payments on existing contracts has built the pre-need trust account back up to $4,000 — up from $221.60 when a civil suit was filed Jan. 22, 2009, and became a criminal investigation — and the account for perpetual care of graves is funded up to $191,500. Operating cash has remained at $25,000 for several months, Sharp said.

But, for those who have held plots at Green Acres for years — about 700 of them scurried to the courthouse in the weeks after details of the probe went public — the situation with the ex-owners figures to be a source of fury until justice is done.

Sharp “is apparently doing a real good job — it looks better, aesthetics-wise,” said Lynn Campbell, who bought a vault in 1990 and whose late husband, John, is buried at the cemetery. “It’s very disappointing. Someone should be accountable for that money,”

Beverly McMillin said several relatives had paid-in-full policies with Green Acres, but all are resigned to paying more for services when the time comes. “They will have to pay again with a promised slight reduction on something,” McMillin said.

More than $373,000 was found missing from the cemetery’s pre-need account, said the suit filed by Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, a Vicksburg native. The fund is set up to hold funds for those who pay for prepaid vaults and markers. Assets of the former operator, Houston-based Mike W. Graham & Associates LLC, were seized as part of the investigation, for which information is being gathered by the Attorney General’s Office for possible criminal charges.

A year later, the probe has not progressed much, with the most recent coming when a $2.2 million deed of trust against the property by Ciena Capital LLC was lifted — something Hosemann indicated Thursday is a major victory in the state’s quest to sell the cemetery back into private ownership.

“We were able to negotiate that at no cost to the taxpayer,” Hosemann said, adding his office is now working to clear a few smaller liens from the property, totaling about $20,000.

However, Hosemann admitted the likelihood for recovering the missing money specified in the civil complaint “is very slim.” Hosemann’s office filed civil actions against seven other cemeteries in the state last year, with Green Acres being the most serious in terms of missing money. Including Green Acres, five have had assets seized and one conviction has resulted.

Not much has been gleaned about the former owners. Graham died in 2007. Graham’s widow, Linda, 61, and daughter, Stephanie, 32, both of Houston, have not appeared in court and have communicated with investigators through briefs filed by their attorney, Ken Rector. Specifics have not gone past name, age and various home and business addresses in Houston when answering questions. In responses to questions about the firm’s finances, both have denied knowledge of actions by company personnel that could have resulted in depleted funds. However, records show Stephanie Graham’s signature appeared in 2005 on routine forms filed with the state in accordance with Mississippi’s Pre-Need Act.

When asked about any unpaid, outstanding judgments against her, Linda Graham told investigators in November there “may be a judgment against her from Target on outstanding credit card debt.” Graham said she worked in payroll for the parent company in Houston, but does not remember ever being on the payroll of the local cemetery. In court testimony, the state said an account in Mississippi was used as a clearing account to send money to other properties in the Southeast, including several in Alabama and South Carolina. None were located in Texas, where Graham ran the main office.

Hosemann sounded a hopeful tone on the cemetery during an address Thursday to Vicksburg Main Street, calling Sharp’s stewardship of Green Acres “phenomenal” and that the aim is to auction Green Acres to the public through Chancellor Vicki Roach Barnes.

“One of the biggest things that happened was to get the books and records straight, get our facts straight and start to operate so people could begin to be buried and be confident that their loved ones’ graves were going to be taken care of,” Hosemann said.

In December, Sharp was tapped by Hosemann to sit on the new Pre-Need Loss Recovery Association to help people who buy pre-need services after the state’s newest Cemetery Law that became effective July 1, 2009.

The law requires the cemetery put 85 percent of pre-need merchandise money into the fund, with reports to the Secretary of State’s Office annually. It also requires anyone selling pre-need services to be licensed as a pre-need provider and restricts provider licenses to cemeteries and funeral homes.


Contact Danny Barrett Jr. at