Suburban Memorial Gardens: With owners imprisoned, families caring for cemetery
For more than a year, a group of volunteers have been providing the upkeep at Suburban Memorial Gardens because the owners of the cemetery in Conewago Township are in prison.
In April, after nearly two years of investigation, cemetery owners Theodore "Ted" Martin, 55, and Arminda Martin, 47, were indicted on mail fraud charges, alleging they defrauded at least 200 customers of more than $500,000.
Annette Fisher, whose parents are buried at the cemetery at 3875 Bull Road, said those with loved ones at the cemetery have been dealing with the upkeep for more than a year, and despite their efforts, nothing has been done to change that.
“We’re still in the same spot we were in a year ago," Fisher said last month.
Upkeep: Fisher, of Manchester Township, said the families of loved ones who are buried there are taking care of the land.
“It’s a very small group that have taken this on, and they deserved to be recognized," she said.
The volunteers mow the lawn, Fisher said, adding that it is not easy to do because of all the headstones. She also noted that the people maintaining the cemetery are doing it at their own expense.
“There are some wonderful people with some very giving hearts that have taken on this cemetery and are taking care of it,” Fisher said.
Bob Rambo, of Yorkana, said he and his wife have been clearing the spot of the cemetery where their son was buried in 2009. He said it was around Mother's Day in 2017 that people started noticing the grass at the cemetery was getting high.
“That’s when we found out that Ted Martin and his wife had been embezzling money from the cemeteries and nothing was being kept up," he said.
Fisher and Rambo said they have not been able to reach anyone affiliated with the cemetery. No one answered the door at an office just behind the cemetery when a reporter stopped there, and a number listed for the cemetery has been disconnected.
Rambo said the group of people taking care of the place help out when they can.
“We would like to try to help maintain — you just can’t do it all the time,” he said.
Last year, Fisher started a Facebook group for those affected, called "Friends of Suburban Memorial Gardens, Dover, PA." The group has more than 250 members. Often members will post when they have mowed or taken care of the cemetery on the page.
Larry Julius, president of Homeland Defenders RC, Pennsylvania chapter, said in June that the organization, which helps veterans and the community, has been helping with some of the upkeep for about a month.
The club, which has about a dozen people, has come out and helped do some of the weeding and mowing at the cemetery, he said.
“It’s not like a cemetery where you have normal maintenance crew ... this is an ongoing thing," Julius, of Dover, said.
One thing the club has helped with is getting a dumpster on the property, something Julius said was needed.
“There was only a few trash cans up there, and every time we were up there, they were overflowing,” he said.
Julius said Scott Wagner, former senator and current Republican gubernatorial candidate, donated the dumpster through the trash company he owns, Penn Waste.
Julius said his club initially got involved because they wanted to take care of the veterans section of the cemetery. The club is planning to hold a wreath-laying ceremony for the veterans there in December, he said.
Help: Fisher said some of the people helping have reached out to local lawmakers, but nothing has come from it yet.
“I just wish we could find a resolution so that we had a plan and that plan could be carried out," she said.
Rambo said he talked to the office of state Rep. Keith Gillespie, R-Hellam Township, and was told there is a statute that would force townships to take care of an abandoned cemetery, should residents petition for it.
Rambo said he tried to get people to look into petitioning the township, but it didn't go anywhere.
He also said people have been reaching out to Conewago Township to see if the township would do anything, but they've not heard back. Reached Thursday, June 14, township manager LouAnne Bostic deferred comment regarding the township's cemetery responsibilities to the borough's solicitor, Sean Fields.
Reached Monday, June 18, Fields said the township's options are limited. He said the township could send a warning letter to the cemetery telling the owners to clean the property within 30 days. After 30 days, the township could do the cleanup, bill the owners, then pursue legal action, he said.
“That remedy is really designed for action and then seeking collection,” he said, adding that because the owners are in prison, this option is difficult.
As for petitioning the township, Fields said the statute that allows for that is from the early 1920s, and it only establishes that the township limit spending on it to $30. He said he is unsure how courts would perceive the older statute.
Fields said the township is still considering the two options.
Rambo said he hopes something can be done and mentioned potentially forming a committee to help provide oversight to the abandoned cemetery.
Hearing: Gillespie said Thursday, June 14, that he would like to hold a policy hearing in York County, so that those affected by the cemetery can testify before lawmakers. From there officials can identify the inherent problems and see what can be done legislatively.
“Right now, unfortunately with the people in jail and not having any assets, there’s really not anything that can be done," he said.
Gillespie said he would like to have the hearing sometime this summer.
The representative said he would also like to see a group of investors potentially take on the cemetery to help those affected.
“I would also try to solicit a group of investors that would take this thing over and try to at least satisfy some of the people that have paid deposits,” he said.
Gillespie said he would like to get something back for the people who have been affected.
Cemetery: Both Martins are still listed as owners of the cemetery on York County's property viewer. The two were sentenced to years in prison for theft related to two other cemeteries they owned in Ohio and are awaiting trial in their Pennsylvania case.
Wanda Murren, director of the office of communications and press for the Pennsylvania Department of State, said the cemetery's registration expired in January 2016, meaning that the cemetery could not sell plots after that date.
She said the Real Estate Commission, which registers cemetery companies for the purpose of selling plots, does not have a record of any owner or officer currently with the cemetery.
The Martins: The Martins collected money for burial services, plots, vaults, caskets and grave markers between 2010 and 2016, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Officials say the couple collected about $500,000 from at least 200 customers and embezzled the money to use for their own personal gain, including gambling.
The Martins' indictment alleges there are multiple accounts of customers sending payments to them for thousands of dollars in cemetery services but never being provided the services.
At the time of their Pennsylvania indictment, Arminda Martin was serving 4½ years in prison and Theodore Martin was serving five years in prison.
Both of their prison sentences were for thefts related to the two cemeteries they owned in Ohio, according to officials.
Messages left for their attorneys seeking comment were not returned. Jury selection for the Martins' trial is scheduled to start July 5.
— Reach Christopher Dornblaser at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @YDDornblaser.