State: Mausoleum company still needs to inspect Sunset - WRCBtv.com | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

State: Mausoleum company still needs to inspect Sunset

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  • State: Mausoleum company still needs to inspect SunsetMore>>

  • UPDATE: More than 125 complaints pending against Cecil Lawrence owned cemeteries

    UPDATE: More than 125 complaints pending against Cecil Lawrence owned cemeteries

    Monday, September 28 2015 2:53 PM EDT2015-09-28 18:53:41 GMT
    Up to 125 people have filled out formal complaints about conditions at Sunset Memorial Gardens and Hilcrest Memorial Gardens as of Thursday. The move comes after funeral director and business owner Ralph Buckner Jr. took out a full page ad in the Cleveland Daily Banner asking for families impacted by poor conditions at the cemeteries to come forward.More
    Up to 125 people have filled out formal complaints about conditions at Sunset Memorial Gardens and Hilcrest Memorial Gardens as of Thursday. The move comes after funeral director and business owner Ralph Buckner Jr. took out a full page ad in the Cleveland Daily Banner asking for families impacted by poor conditions at the cemeteries to come forward.More

UPDATE: A spokesperson with the Department of Insurance and Commerce says a third party inspector's recent visit to Sunset Memorial Gardens was not the required inspection described in a consent order.

"We have reviewed a letter dated Sept. 18 regarding McCleskey Mausoleums’ initial visit to Sunset Memorial Gardens on Sept. 4, 2015," said Kevin Walters, director of communications for the Department of Insurance and Commerce. "To be clear, this is not the report that is required by the terms of the Consent Order."

READ MORE | UPDATE: More than 125 complaints pending against Cecil Lawrence owned cemeteries

While Walters refers to the Sept. 4 two page document as a letter, McCleskey refers to it as a response to the consent order with numbers corresponding to each paragraph in the state document. 

"During my visit I found the grounds to be clean ad orderly with no sign of odors coming from either the main mausoleum or the new chapel. ... I found no leaking in the resurrection room or any of the existing rooms," writes Kim Tadlock, vice president of production at McCleskey. 

She goes on to write, "Again during my visit I did not notice any odors of decomposing remains."

State officials will be meeting with members of McCleskey Mausoleums tomorrow in Cleveland, Walters said.

Cecil Lawrence, who owns Sunset and other cemeteries across the South, submitted a retention agreement between his company, Dallas, Ga.-based Cecil Lawrence, Inc.and Buford, Ga.-based McCleskey Mausoleums on Sept. 25.He noted the consent order signed by Lawrence on Aug. 25 is still in place.

Lawrence has to have a third party inspector document any needed repairs at the mausoleum and create a timeline for the work to be performed.

"As the consent order states: Time is of the essence," Walters said.

Should the terms not be met in the consent decree, a license to operate Sunset could be suspended.

In the past, state reports have shown issues with odor and body fluid leaking from crypts due to decomposing bodies entombed on site. 

William Colvin, an attorney representing Lawrence, said they do not believe the fluids or the odor are from bodies. He said Lawrence is working to make any needed repairs.

Lawrence submitted a total of two companies to meet the state's inspection requirement. The first company was rejected by the state.

The second company, McCleskey, was accepted. McCleskey will have to become licensed in Tennessee should the company perform any construction work at Sunset. Tennessee has no mausoleum companies within the state that could do the inspection and possible repairs.

State records show Sunset has a total of 21 acres available for immediate use at the cemetery.

As of March of last year, there were 4,467 remaining grave spaces available for sale, Walters said.

Stay with Channel 3 for more on this developing story.


UPDATE: The owner of Sunset Memorial Gardens "admits there have been odors in the mausoleums but denies such odors were due to the condition of the crypts, and denies that human fluids have leaked from the crypts," according to a three page response filed Wednesday afternoon in Bradley County Chancery Court.

Cecil Lawrence agrees that some of the front plates have fallen from crypts at the mausoleum. He denies that the smell in the mausoleums has been from decomposing bodies. That contradicts what family members have told Channel 3 and what a state inspector documented in reports.

William Colvin, an attorney who is representing Lawrence, said they would look into what is causing the smell.

Colvin says that a proper complaint procedure has been in place despite what a consent decree filed last month by 10th Judicial District Attorney General Stephen Crump notes. 

Colvin met with prosecutors Wednesday afternoon, he said. 

"We will continue to work with the state and district attorney to get information shared and try to resolve this," he said in a phone interview.

In some cases, Lawrence was the last to know about complaints made at the cemetery. 

"In part because some complaints were not made known to Respondent until they were made to either the District Attorney or State, and in part because Respondent has received inconsistent direction from the State as to when corrective action would be required and what would constitute appropriate corrective action," the response states.

Kevin Walters, director of communications for the Department of Insurance and Commerce, said the state has not received a copy of the response and declined to comment at this time.

Crump's consent decree lays out a list of requests for Lawrence to meet at Sunset Memorial Gardens including turning over financial records and disclosing all officers, directors and shareholders. The response makes no mention of the requests and asks that the action to enforce a consent decree be dismissed. 

Colvin said that he would review the requests with Lawrence.

At this time, a court date has not been set in Bradley County Chancery Court.


UPDATE: An attorney representing the owner of Sunset Memorial Gardens says a third party inspector did not detect any odors of decomposing bodies during an on-site visit September 4.

William Colvin, an attorney who is representing Dallas, Ga.-based Cecil Lawrence LLC, said an inspector with Georgia-based McCleskey Mausoleums noted there was not sheetrock ceilings as noted in a state report. He said the ceilings are concrete painted with a textured finish.

Colvin plans to submit the inspection report to the state Department of Insurance and Commerce today. He also plans to file a response to a consent decree filed last month by 10th Judicial District Attorney General Stephen Crump in Bradley County Chancery Court. 

"The Lawrences' objective is to operate in a professional and respectful way. That's why they have tried to be responsive to everything the state has asked them to do," he said.

At this point, McCleskey Mausoleums has not submitted bids or offered to do repairs on the mausoleums at Sunset Memorial Gardens, Colvin said. The company would have to obtain a license in the state of Tennessee to perform any on site work.

 It's unclear what, if any repairs, McCleskey Mausoleums has recommended. Colvin was unable to go into specifics during a telephone interview. 

"They want to do it right," Colvin said. "Our goal is to get it worked out."

Stay with Channel 3 for more on this developing story.


PREVIOUS STORY: Families who have loved ones entombed at Sunset Memorial Gardens continue waiting for the owner to make needed changes to the mausoleum and grounds.

The owner, Dallas, GA-based Cecil Lawrence LLC, has hired a mausoleum contractor, Buford, GA-based McCleskey Mausoleums. But the company is not licensed in the state of Tennessee.

It's unclear if McCleskey Mausoleums has a deadline to become licensed but it could be on site and performing inspections within the week. The company cannot perform any renovations until they receive a Tennessee license, said Kevin Walters, director of communications for the Department of Insurance and Commerce.

Walters says the state rejected the first company Lawrence proposed to have inspect his cemetery.

"The terms of the consent order between the Department and the Lawrence Group are still in place," Walters said in an email. "If those terms are not met, the Department will move forward with the summary suspension of Sunset Memorial’s license."

Over the last several years, Lawrence has come under fire over conditions at Sunset Memorial Gardens.

As a result the Department of Insurance and Commerce is requiring Lawrence to comply with a consent order issued last month.

The order states Lawrence has to enter into a contract with a third party contractor to assess a mausoleum at Sunset Memorial Gardens in Cleveland. The mausoleum expert will make recommendations for needed repairs as well as create a timeline setting deadlines. The deadline for Lawrence to submit a plan was Friday. Lawrence had a month to meet the deadline. Records show he sent a letter of retention Friday.

Lawrence has been fined numerous times regarding the upkeep of the cemetery and mausoleum.

He had until 4:30 p.m. Monday to respond to conditions outlined in a consent decree filed last month by 10th Judicial District Attorney General Stephen Crump in Bradley County Chancery Court. 

Court records show attorney William Colvin has been retained by Lawrence.

Colvin served as one of the class counsel in the Tri-State Crematory Multi-District Litigation after remains were mishandled in Noble, Ga. The case ended with judgments in more than $120 million, according to the law firm's website. He could not be reached for comment Monday afternoon.

If the deadline passes, the district attorney's office can ask to set a hearing or ask the chancellor for a default judgment. As of 2:15 p.m. Monday afternoon, nothing was filed.

Crump requested that Lawrence provide the names of officers, directors and stockholders of Cecil Lawrence Inc. He also asked that Lawrence turn over forensically audited copies of corporate financial records including the improvement and perpetual care trust funds. 

Lawrence, who owns cemeteries in at least four Southern states, has a history of misappropriating funds, records show.

Records obtained by Channel 3 show that in 2009, Lawrence withdrew $340,000 from Sunset Memorial Gardens improvement trust fund and deposited in company's general operating account.

None of the withdrawals were used to improve the cemetery. He was later required to replenish the funds he took and ordered to pay $34,000 in penalties.

In the last five years, Lawrence has had to pay $55,000 in civil penalties against Sunset Memorial.

The cemetery, which was chartered in 1955, has a reported 26 acres held by the cemetery. A total of 21 acres are available for immediate use, according to state records.

As of March of last year, there were 4,467 remaining grave spaces were available for sale, Walters said.

Lawrence owns a total of three cemeteries in Tennessee including Sunset. He also owns Hilcrest Memorial Gardens in Cleveland as well as Wilson County Memorial Park in Lebanon.

In 2012, Lawrence had to pay nearly $100,000 in civil penalties related to the operation of Hilcrest Memorial as well as Wilson County Memorial.

The penalties were made after Lawrence withdrew $563,528 from the Hilcrest Memorial Garden’s improvement care trust fund and placed it in in the general operating fund. State records show Lawrence also misappropriated $873,927 in funds for the Wilson County.

In Georgia, criminal charges were brought about Lawrence after he misappropriated funds.

Channel 3 has obtained court records from Douglas County Superior Court showing Lawrence was convicted of three counts of theft by conversion in 2013 after his attorney negotiated a plea.

Prosecutors initially filed a total of 19 counts of various charges including forgery and attempt to misappropriate and unlawfully convert escrow account funds.

As a result of the sentence, Lawrence was sentenced to 12 months on probation and ordered to pay a $3,000 fine.

The corporation was ordered to pay $45,000 over a five year period. As part of the terms, the corporation would also have to provide an audit if the Georgia Secretary of State requested for Lawrence’s three cemeteries in Georgia: Mosley Memorial Gardens, LaFayette Memorial Gardens and Greenhills Memory Gardens. All 14 victims in the case had paid for burial sites.

In Alabama, there is no state agency that regulates cemeteries.

“We don’t even know that he owns any cemeteries or funeral homes,” said Rebecca Morris, business services director for the state of Alabama. “Because it’s a foreign corporation, they don’t have to tell us.”

Media reports show that Lawrence owns at least one cemetery just outside of Huntsville.

One man told a television station that he has to cut the grass around his parents’ graves at Burning Tree Memorial Gardens located in Priceville.

“You almost can`t see [the graves]. There are fire ants and other stuff. It`s just been unkempt, totally unkempt,” the man told the television station.

In Mississippi, Lawrence owns New Legacy Memorial, Hillcrest Cemetery and Roseland Park. A state spokesperson said while complaints are not subject to public records laws, no orders had been issued for the cemeteries.

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