June 25, 2010
A Michigan cemetery operator has repaid $4.2 million in cemetery trust funds he embezzled from Chapel Hill Memorial Gardens in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Last September, Robert Earl Nelms was convicted of embezzlement and failing to properly administer numerous funeral contracts over a three year period. His sentencing had been delayed pending completion of his restitution payment to the Court. Now that restitution has been received, Nelms is expected to be sentenced before Kent County Circuit Judge George S. Buth as soon as a date can be set.

"Stealing from the dead is a heartbreaking betrayal to grieving families," said Attorney General Mike Cox. "Michigan citizens who have laid their loved ones to rest have a right to know their wishes will be honored and protected."

The restitution funds were wired to an escrow account overseen by Ingham County Circuit Court Judge James Giddings. The Michigan Cemetery Commissioner and the Court-Appointed Conservator of Chapel Hill Memorial Gardens will work with the Court to direct the restitution back to the pilfered trust accounts.

Nelms, of Indiana, is expected be sentenced to a prison term of 20-120 months for the embezzlement charge and 20-60 months for the failure to trust count. Under Michigan law, the terms of incarceration are served concurrently. Cox said his office anticipates that all of Nelms' Michigan victims will see their trust accounts fully restored.

Charges cover two states

In December 2007, a joint Attorney General and Department of Energy, Labor, and Economic Growth (DELEG) investigation uncovered the theft, resulting in criminal charges and forcing Nelms to lose control of Chapel Hill Cemetery.

In total, it is alleged Nelms stole more than $24 million from cemeteries and funeral homes he controlled in Michigan and Indiana. He did this by selling cemetery products and services but failing to deposit the required portion in trust for cemetery upkeep and consumers' use. Approximately $4.2 million dollars were from the Grand Rapids cemetery, with Nelms facing charges in Indiana for the rest.

This is the second defendant convicted by Cox for involvement in a major theft of cemetery trust funds. Carter Green of Nevada was convicted in Wayne County Circuit court in December of 2007 for his role in aiding co-defendant Clayton Smart.

Smart is accused of embezzling as much as $70 million in cemetery trust funds from 28 Michigan cemeteries. He is awaiting trial in Tennessee on related charges. Upon completion of that trial, Smart will be transferred to Michigan for arraignment on charges filed by Cox.