Jackson County cemetery ‘nightmare’: Owner charged with mismanaging funds, future in limbo

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PASCAGOULA, Miss.

Local cemetery owner Nell Morgan owes nearly $1 million total to least 150 people, according to an 11-count criminal indictment handed down by the state in January. About half of that is for goods and services that they reportedly paid for but never received.

The state put Jackson County Memorial Park and Perpetual Care Cemetery into receivership in May 2008 after concerns arose about management practices there.

The investigation was sparked by complaints received by the Pascagoula Police Department over several years.

Officials from the Jackson County District Attorney’s office, as well as the secretary of state and attorney general offices, have been tracking developments in the case.

Morgan, who is 79, has pleaded not guilty to four counts of misapplication of funds and seven counts of false pretense, specifically, failing to deliver items such as grave markers to customers who had purchased them.

A trial is set for May in circuit court, but Morgan’s lawyer, Mark Knighten of Pascagoula, said he plans to challenge the state’s evidence.

Knighten said if Morgan is guilty of anything, it’s mismanagement.

She was left with a vast business to run after her husband, Ralph, died in 1997, he said, and was simply overwhelmed.

“When the dust settles in this case, I don’t think there is anything criminal that my client has done,” Knighten said. “It’s unfortunate that there are so many people out there that paid for headstones and such and did not get them, but in terms of Mrs. Morgan converting some of these cemetery funds to her own use, that’s simply not true.”

The indictment lists 163 claims that range from $10 to more than a half-million dollars for a personal injury case involving a former cemetery employee involved in an auto accident.

According to the district attorney’s office, the window is closed for people to file new claims related to the indictment, but they can file a complaint with the police department.

Dating to the 1950s, the Ingalls Avenue cemetery consists of about 5,000 gravesites spread over 20 acres. About half of those have been sold.

Before the financial troubles, the cemetery also sold crypts, vaults and markers.

Only plots are sold now, with a handful — about $1,200 worth — sold last year. Fifteen percent of that goes into a trust fund intended for the upkeep of the grounds.

The trust fund, managed for free by Pascagoula lawyer James Heidelberg, contains about $170,000.

In November, Chancery Judge Neil Harris ordered the release of $20,000 from the fund, which was spent on repair of mausoleums that had been damaged in Hurricane Katrina, according to Joe White, the lawyer handling the receivership.

“We do the best we can,” White said. “Judge Harris really has a nightmare on his hands trying to keep the cemetery in some type of operation and at the same time working with families so that their rights are protected as much as they can be.”

Harris could not be reached last week.

A recent visit to the cemetery revealed some patches of weeds and muddy walkways around the mausoleums, but not total disrepair.

Jamie Dent, an Ocean Springs accountant who is guiding the receivership, said that the cemetery has not gotten a thorough mowing and trimming since a handful of staff had to be let go in the fall for lack of funds.

Today, there is a single, elderly groundskeeper who works about 20 hours a week, he said. 

Dent said he’s worried with the spring growing season quickly approaching.

One local woman who spoke with the newspaper said she found the mausoleum area looking like “a dump” during a visit to her father’s crypt in the fall.

The woman’s mother is in an assisted living home, and she said if it weren’t so costly, she would have her father’s body moved.

Heidelberg said that about 10 years ago, the then-trustees of the cemetery trust fund asked him to help them get the records in order because they were concerned about deteriorating conditions. He said he has spent hundreds of hours sifting through boxes up to his waist, consisting of records in complete disarray.

He ended up with about $130,000 spread about among more than two dozen accounts, which he consolidated into a single perpetual care trust.

Heidelberg said that he is managing the trust for free because he understands how people feel: When his mother died in 2008, Heidelberg had to buy her already-paid-for marker when the cemetery failed to do so.

His father was buried there in 1992.

Heidelberg praised the efforts of Harris, Dent and White, but said he is not optimistic about anyone getting their money back from Morgan.

Knighten agreed. “She ain’t got nothing,” he said.

By Kaija Wilkinson
The Mississippi Press

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