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Attorneys to hire a forensic auditor to unravel cemetery finances

Trying to unravel the business operations of Shepherd Memorial Park, attorneys agreed in court last week to depose the cemetery’s former attorney and to seek a certified public accountant to conduct a forensic audit of the books and bank records.

The attorney for the North Carolina Cemetery Commission, which forced Shepherd Memorial Park into receivership in 2021 amid dozens of consumer complaints, and the attorney for Melody Shepherd announced the agreement before Superior Court Judge Marvin P. Pope on April 26 after almost three hours of closed-door negotiations.

The lawyers, Shepherd and cemetery receiver Gary McDowell were in court for a second time on state regulators’ motion to find Shepherd in contempt for failing to turn over information on the cemetery’s assets and revenue, including “detail by line item of all payments received by the defendant totaling $205,867.35.” Shepherd testified in an earlier hearing last month that she knew nothing about the business operations in 2021 because she was absent during that time caring for her husband, Thomas R. “Tom” Shepherd, who died on New Year’s Eve of 2021.

The attorneys and McDowell met with Judge Pope in his chambers, then met with their clients on benches outside the courtroom to work out details. Sharon Alexander, the Hendersonville attorney the cemetery board hired to handle the local case, described the agreement to Pope. She said the order:

  • Requires Melody Shepherd within 30 days “to compose a plan to the plaintiff and to the receiver that would provide that she maintain ownership of the cemetery but not be involved in the operation.”
  • Directs attorneys for Shepherd, the cemetery and the Cemetery Commission and the receiver to obtain the deposition of Michael Edney in order to ask what he knows about the business during the time he represented Melody Shepherd and Shepherd Memorial Park. The cost of the deposition will be covered by the receivership. Edney represented Melody Shepherd until the court released him as her attorney at his request on Jan. 20 of this year. She is now represented by Stephen P. Lindsay and Mary Ann J. Hollocker of the Lindsay Law firm in Asheville.
  • Requires the plaintiff and defendant of the parties to suggest three names of a certified public accountant to conduct a forensic audit of the records and “maybe suggest other records that need to be collected in the continuing effort to determine what has happened with the monies that were paid in to the cemetery funds and how those monies were used.” If the parties agree on a CPA before the court reconvenes “then the parties are authorized to direct that process to begin.”
  • Authorized McDowell to pay himself $5,000 for work he’s done as receiver and authorized him “to continue to look for any other bank accounts into which funds of the cemetery operation have been deposited.”

Lindsay got into the record an addition to the agreement designed to ensure Edney would be open in answering questions about his time representing Mrs. Shepherd and the cemetery.

“The order also will require Mrs. Shepherd to waive any confidentiality she has in her official capacity as an officer that would prevent Mr. Edney from answering questions,” Lindsay said.

Edney, who is a six-term Henderson County commissioner, said Monday night after a Board of Commissioners meeting that he welcomed the deposition.

“I asked that I be allowed to tell what I know,” he said.

The N.C. Cemetery Commission’s motion for contempt against Melody Shepherd remains unresolved while the attorneys take the next steps to stabilize the operations of the memorial park.

In a status report he submitted to Judge Pope last year, McDowell reported that a receipt book showed the cemetery received payments totaling $205,867.35 in 2021 but contained “no information as to if and where it was deposited.” The cemetery was in arrears $36,000 to Matthews International, a manufacturer of bronze markers and death date scrolls. “That is in addition to $68,165 that was collected from families for new bronze markers and death date scrolls that were never ordered” or left unfilled by Matthews because of the delinquent account, the receiver said.

“A sacred trust that was formed over two generations with the Shepherd family and the many families of Henderson and surrounding counties it has served has been shattered,” McDowell said. “In my opinion, Mrs. Shepherd entrusted the cemetery to individuals that desperately needed adult supervision that they did not have.”

In a Superior Court hearing on April 12, Lindsay, the cemetery’s attorney, asked McDowell about Daniel Yaeger, who had been acting as manager of the cemetery during Mrs. Shepherd’s absence.

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

“Yes,” McDowell responded.

In her testimony that day, Shepherd denied knowing the whereabouts of the payments recorded in the cemetery’s receipt book.

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

Yaeger: ‘Nobody’s even tried calling me’

In an interview on April 20, Yaeger told the Lightning about his experience trying to manage the cemetery with no staff and also said he had worked as Tom Shepherd’s caregiver before his death.

“I’m in a big old battle with several people involved in that,” he said when asked about the Shepherd cemetery receivership. Even though he would seem to have information needed in the effort to sort out the records — and ascertain what happened to $206,000 — Yaeger said no one has contacted him.

“The last attorney that spoke to me from the Shepherd cemetery was Michael Edney,” he said. “He was talking to me when the state first came in, and Mrs. Shepherd was trying to deny anything, deny basically the deals made between Mr. Shepherd and myself.”

Yaeger said that he had served as a caregiver for Tom Shepherd before his death on New Year’s Eve of 2021.

“For the last two years of Mr. Shepherd’s life, he was very sick,” he said. “Mentally, he was fine. He really did not lose his mental faculties, not until probably the last six weeks of his life. But physically he was sick and he could not move. And so I carried him from his bed to his chair every day, I took him to the bathroom, I helped Mrs. Shepherd give him showers — basically, whatever was needed.”

Yaeger described his relationship with Tom Shepherd as one of friendship but also one supported by a written agreement they had worked out that he said Edney helped draft.

Was Tom Shepherd or the business paying him?

“For the longest time, yes, I was paid and then when we made the deal we made, it got to where I did not really get any kind of salary,” he said. “I lost my house, I lost a lot, because I lost my money and then didn’t get any money brought in.”

Yaeger said he’d tell the receiver all he knows about marker orders and payments made if someone contacted him.

“Nobody’s even tried calling me,” he said. “This is the first time I’ve heard about a receipt book and they’re looking for it and saying they’re trying to find me when I’ve had the same number for seven years now.”

Alexander said Monday she is not authorized to provide any information about the case to the press. Neither two attorneys for Melody Shepherd; or McDowell, the receiver; or Melody Shepherd responded to phone or email messages from the Lightning seeking comment on Yaeger’s statements.

Yaeger said he wanted people to know that Tom Shepherd was not running the business when the state Board of Funeral Service shut down the funeral home and the Cemetery Commission forced the memorial park into receivership.

“I hope when reporting on this, you just keep in mind and remember that no matter what comes of this or what problems there are, Mr. Shepherd had nothing to do with it,” he said. “He was really the good man that everybody thought he was.”