Local cemetery owners accused of stealing $23M in funds

Robert Nelms

Sandra Chapman/13 Investigates

Indianapolis - A local cemetery owner and his wife are in jail, accused of stealing $23 million in maintenance funds from the cemeteries they bought. Robert Nelms, 39, and his 48-year-old wife have been at the center of grave concerns before.

"The fund was raided," said Secretary of State Todd Rokita at a press conference Thursday.

Arrested on charges of theft and conspiracy, Nelms, the owner of Forest Lawn Memory Gardens in Greenwood and eight other cemeteries across the state, is accused of skimming from a $24 million fund strictly set aside for grounds upkeep.

Investigators say $13 million was taken in 2004, the day Nelms and his wife Deborah Johnson purchased Memory Gardens Management.

"Transferred money from assets and cash from those funds and used it for personal reasons, and to actually help pay the purchase price of the Indiana businesses that they were buying," said Rokita.

Nelms bought the business from Jim Meyer.

"We're very saddened in the sense that we've been a member of these communities for over 50 years. We have very many friends in these communities. We've served thousands of families," said Meyer.

Jim Meyer says he's pleased Indiana Attorney General Steve Carter Thursday also filed a civil suit in Johnson County. Carter said it "will seek to freeze the assets in this case and the appointment of a receiver to collect the remaining assets that are there."

The receiver will also be charged with finding out how the Nelms will pay back the trust fund cash. They were held on a half-million dollar bond each.

It's not the first cemetery investigation involving Nelms. In November 2006, he spoke exclusively to 13 Investigates about fraud and an illicit body-parts scheme discovered at a funeral home he purchased in Brooklyn, New York. Seven funeral home directors admitted selling compromised body parts and tissue for money.

"We're in the service industry. We don't need people who are performing rogue acts for their own personal benefit," said Nelms in 2006.

In that case, the previous funeral home owner was accused of stealing from the dead - both human bones from cadavers and from pre-paid funeral trusts.

"They should be prosecuted. They should have to put the money back. They should have to give those families their money back," Nelms said in the same 2006 interview.

Nelms was never charged.

Indiana investigators say the issue here centers on the 15% fee families pay for cemetery upkeep.

"He has a very large home in Greenwood, Indiana that we believe was bought with proceeds from the fund," said Rokita.

Both Nelms and his wife will have initial hearings Friday morning.

Eyewitness News Reporter David MacAnally contributed to this story.