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$206,000 missing from cemetery remains a mystery

A hearing on a contempt of court motion against Shepherd Memorial Park last week raised more questions than answers in the hunt for a potential $206,000 in business receipts and efforts to locate missing records of the troubled business that remains in court-ordered receivership.

Melody Shepherd, the sole surviving owner of the business that operated Thos. Shepherd & Son funeral home for more than a century and still owns the cemetery, testified in court last week that her offices at the cemetery and funeral home had been “cleaned out” when she returned from a long leave of absence while caring for her husband, Thomas R. "Tom" Shepherd, who died on Dec. 31, 2021, three weeks after state regulators revoked the funeral home’s license and shut it down.

The testimony came during a hearing on a motion filed by the N.C. Cemetery Commission to find Shepherd Memorial Park in contempt for failing to turn over records and take corrective action to fix problems a receiver found at the cemetery. Stephen P. Lindsay, who is Melody Shepherd’s new attorney along with Mary Ann Hollocker, made reference repeatedly to progress he and the defendant had made to sort things out by working with Gary McDowell, the cemetery’s court-appointed manager, and Sharon Alexander, the Hendersonville attorney who represents the cemetery commission.

“We’re looking for solutions,” Lindsay said, “and I think we’ve been working together to try to accomplish that and working with Ms. Alexander to try to accomplish that. Given what we have learned, it sounds to me like there is more information out there from a financial perspective that needs to be obtained” before the court can rule on the contempt motion.

Superior Court Judge Marvin P. Pope of Asheville agreed to recess the hearing until next week to give the receiver and the attorneys more time to search for records and potentially question former employees.

Both Shepherd and McDowell testified that they believed the cemetery was being managed in Melody Shepherd’s absence by an employee, Daniel Yeager. Lindsay said that Shepherd’s former attorney, Michael Edney, had been hired “to assist in the operation of these businesses and dealing with problems that come up, some of which we’re dealing with here today.”

In a status report he filed with the court last Wednesday, Lindsay said that:

  • “We do not have any records about receipts” of payments totaling $205,867.35. He said he tried to get information from Edney, who told him that “the bank account was closed many months ago” and that Edney had no information about “these receipts.” Records from First Bank and First Citizens Bank had been provided to the receiver; Lindsay said in court last Wednesday that McDowell was meeting with United Community Bank, a third bank where the business had an account, later that day.
  • Vehicles that were identified as “problematic” — broken down or unusable — were removed from the memorial park as the Cemetery Commission demanded.
  • “We have no information about burials performed in 2021.” Records, he said, would have been maintained by Yeager, whom Lindsay had been unable to locate or contact.
  • He is “unaware of any trust payments” made to the cemetery. He requested trust account information from Edney but only received “information related to an unrelated pending lawsuit.”

While Lindsay said his office had received several bankers boxes filled with cemetery files, his questioning of McDowell and Shepherd suggested that there is more unknown than known about the cemetery’s business and finances in the time Melody Shepherd was absent.

“Based on your personal investigation into things and inquiries into things, some questions have come up about the integrity of the way Yaeger may have handled some of these?”

“Yes,” McDowell responded.

Despite missing records and questions about what happened in 2021 and 2022, McDowell, who also is manager of Western Carolina State Veterans Cemetery in Black Mountain, has gotten the cemetery up and running.

“If I’m understanding things correctly, you’re actually moving forward with the business, the business is holding its own,” Lindsay said. “They’re performing burials. You’ve got a staff there that’s helping you work and things are moving in a positive direction.”

“Yes,” McDowell said.

Melody Shepherd's offices were ‘cleaned out’

Shepherd testified that she was away from the business for “at least two or three years” during the period when the N.C. Board of Funeral Service was investigating numerous complaints that led ultimately to the shutdown of the funeral home and when the N.C. Cemetery Commission was also forcing the cemetery into receivership.

“I had a key and Tom had a key, and I went to the cemetery,” she said of her first visit back. “I had not been there for quite some time. It was after the surgery and my office — the door was open and it had literally been cleaned out.” At the funeral home, too, “Everything in my office was cleaned out,” she said.

At one point, Edney had access to the business’s post office box but that has since been closed, Shepherd said.

Lindsay said, “And you don’t have any funds, any checks or anything like that that would have been in payment made for services?”

“I don’t know where they are or where they’ve gone,” she said. “I don’t know. I’m sorry.”

Lindsay told Judge Pope that he and his staff would continue to go through the boxes of records they now had, in coordination with McDowell and Alexander, in an effort to “fill out a historical picture” of burials, vendor records, bills paid or received in 2021 and 2022 and recover the missing $206,000.

“I’m also expecting some additional information from former counsel and I have a number of banker boxes of records that I got from former counsel that I’m going through that may have some helpful information for you,” Lindsay told the receiver.

Toward the tail end of her testimony, Shepherd thanked Lindsay for trying to sort things out.

“You have been a gift from God and I’ve been living in hell for the last three years,” she said.

“Well, let’s hope that we both can work our way out of it,” the attorney said. “I don’t know that I rise to the level of God but I don’t know that anybody really deserves to be in hell.”