'It cannot go unpunished': Residents urge change following alleged cemetery theft

More than two dozen people filled the Northern Regional Police Department  on Wednesday, Sept. 5, to urge lawmakers to consider action after residents were allegedly defrauded by the owners of a Conewago Township cemetery.

"They took advantage of people when they were at their lowest point, grieving the loss of a loved one and suffering. Taking advantage of that moment in someone's life and stealing money from them is something that cannot be swept under the carpet — it cannot go unpunished," testified Vickie Snyder, whose son is buried at the cemetery.

Vickie Snyder of Dover Township wipes provides emotional testimony during a House Majority Policy Committee hearing at the Northern York County Regional Police Department regarding alleged fraud by the owners of Suburban Memorial Gardens  Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018. Snyder's son is buried at the Conewago Township cemetery. Bill Kalina photo

Authorities have said Theodore and Arminda Martin, owners of Suburban Memorial Gardens, collected about $500,000 from at least 200 customers and embezzled the money to use for their own personal gain, including gambling. 

More:Suburban Memorial Gardens: With owners imprisoned, families caring for cemetery

More:Owner of Conewago cemetery guilty of theft in Ohio

On Wednesday, state Rep. Keith Gillespie, R-Hellam Township, held a policy hearing that included multiple state representatives, including many from York County, to see what can be done to prevent similar situations with other cemeteries and to see how to help those who have been affected by the alleged cemetery fraud.

Representatives Keith Gillespie and Kristin Phillips-Hill attend a House Majority Policy Committee hearing at the Northern York County Regional Police Department regarding alleged fraud by the owners of Suburban Memorial Gardens  Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018. Bill Kalina photo

Testimony: During the meeting, Snyder, of Dover Township, recalled paying more than $6,000 for her son's headstone, but it was never placed by the Martins. 

“How did life get to this point? Was it not bad enough our son was taken from us, now we’re being told, at the lowest point of our lives, that these people took advantage of us and stole over $6,000,” she said. “When is this nightmare going to end? As a parent who loses a child, the nightmare never ends.”

She said she and her husband went to a monument maker, paid another $6,200 and had the stone placed within six weeks.

"We have been waiting for three years now for somebody to hear our story and praying someone might be able to help get this mess straightened out," she said.

Annette Fisher, of Manchester Township, told lawmakers that she noticed how bad the cemetery looked when she visited it around Mother's Day last year.  Both of her parents are buried there.

"Our system has failed them. We must do something to right this wrong, as those interred in this peaceful place deserve respect and honor and to be cared for unconditionally until the end of time," she said. 

Snyder and Fisher were among four women who testified about their experience with the cemetery, located on Bull Road. Gillespie said that his office received about 40 letters from others affected by the alleged fraud at the cemetery. 

The cemetery has been abandoned, and  family members of those laid to rest there have been taking care of the cemetery when they can.

Ownership: The lawmakers heard testimony from experts as well, including Jack Sommer, CEO of Prospect Hill Cemetery in Manchester Township.

Among the topics discussed was the ownership of Suburban Memorial Gardens, given that the Martins are in prison. 

Sommer testified that it was his belief that the laws and regulations regarding cemeteries in the state are working, as evidenced by the cemeteries statewide following them with no problems. 

Sommer said the focus should be on helping those affected by the cemetery now. He mentioned two possible solutions for the future: having a new owner come in and take over; and making the cemetery a nonprofit organization run by volunteers.

"They're in essence doing it now, ad hoc," Sommer said of the volunteers helping with the cemetery. 

But nothing can be done until the legal ownership of the cemetery changes, he said.

“Mostly, the Martins need to be dealt out of this circumstance,' he said.

The Martins are still listed as owners of the cemetery on York County's property viewer. Craig Schwalm, of the Pennsylvania Cemetery Cremation and Funeral Association, said the Martins have owned the property since 2003.

Sommer said he thinks a field investigation should be triggered if a registration is not  renewed by a cemetery. That, he said, could potentially lead officials to finding wrongdoing or could show there isn't anything improper going on. 

"Cemeteries don't go out of business," he said.

A Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs field agent could ensure the current licensing, make sure there are the required funds and find out where trust accounts are, he said.

Wanda Murren, director of the office of communications and press for the Pennsylvania Department of State, has said the cemetery's registration expired in January 2016, meaning that the cemetery could not sell plots after that date.

Maps: Another topic mentioned during the hearing was access to the cemetery's maps.

Sommer recommended officials find a way to access the cemetery's maps, which he said are likely locked in the office at the cemetery. Funeral directors and licensed practitioners could then access it and use it.

He noted that he's not sure what state the map would be in.

"I'm not saying we're going to find gold," he said. 

Retired York County Judge John Kennedy, also part of the panel of experts, told lawmakers that a group could petition the court to have those maps seized, but it could be costly because all parties, including the Martins and those affected, would have to be contacted.

An individual could petition to get the map to just a part of their affected plot, he said. 

He said an entity representing all the lot owners petitioning for the maps would be the "best bet."

Sommer noted that a guardian would still be needed for the records, but with digital scanning, those files could be shared and a master file could be kept in safekeeping.

Reaction: After the meeting, Bob Rambo, of Yorkana, said it was good that officials took the time to listen to them.

Rambo, whose son is buried at the cemetery, said he thinks the best option would be to have a group of concerned individuals take ownership of the cemetery, as Sommer had mentioned.

Fisher, who testified, had a similar reaction about the hearing,

"I'm just glad to see that it's happening," she said.

Gillespie said after the hearing that lawmakers are going to continue to see what can be done legislatively. 

He also said he would try to find a way for the cemetery's maps to be found. 

The representative also urged people to continue contacting his office if they have been affected by the cemetery.

The Martins: The Martins collected thousands of dollars for burial services, plots, vaults, caskets and grave markers between 2010 and 2016, and they used that money for personal gain, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

At the time of their Pennsylvania indictment in April, Arminda Martin was serving 4½ years in prison and Theodore Martin was serving five years in prison, both for thefts related to the two cemeteries they owned in Ohio, according to officials.

A recent court filing shows that jury selection for the Martins' trial is scheduled to start Dec. 4.

The full hearing will be available to watch on Gillespie's website, www.repgillespie.com/.

— Reach Christopher Dornblaser at cdornblaser@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @YDDornblaser.