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The search for Nelms: new allegations against the man who stole millions in Indiana cemetery fraud

The search for Robert Earl Nelms, former inmate No. 744576 took 13 Investigates on a three-day journey.

The search for Robert Earl Nelms, former inmate No. 744576, took 13 Investigates on a three-day journey.

Back in 2010, he served less than three years in community corrections for one of the largest cemetery fraud schemes in Indiana and Michigan.

Now he's back on the radar facing new questions under a different name and in different states.

The trail started just across the Indiana border in Ohio, where Jose Ortiz spoke about his heartbreaking losses involving a man named Ian Nelms.

"All my life basically I worked to save a little for retirement. He (Nelms) came along and took it all," Ortiz said as he went on to explain how he and three others were taken for more than a half million dollars in retirement savings. "I don't know what to do. I need my money."

Jose Ortiz (WTHR, Bill Ditton)

According to Ortiz, in 2015 he invested his retirement money with Nelms, a family friend who was living in Michigan.

"He promised me 17 percent return," Ortiz said. "I didn't know nothing about it so I said, 'It sounds like a good idea!'"

All Ortiz had to do was transfer his 401K into an IRA self-directed account with Advanta Trust in Texas. Self-directed IRA accounts give investors more control over where they want to put the money and for how long. Based on what Ortiz understood, Nelms could then control and move money around as his investment manager.

But a year into the deal, Ortiz started getting nervous about the arrangement.

He had yet to receive any statements regarding his accounts. There were no reports on earnings or losses from Nelms.

When Ortiz questioned Nelms about the money, he said it was invested in some sort of forest land in Virginia.

Ortiz asked for proof, but all he got was an email from Nelms saying a surveyor from an unnamed timber company would "go in and put together a written proposal."

"Big lies," he said. "We never got any statements."

Nelms also warned Ortiz of a tax liability via email on Dec. 5, 2018. He asked Ortiz to let his CPA "work to help you with FARM tax credits...with losses with our partnership."

According to Ortiz, Nelms had already left Michigan for warmer climates.

That's when he received a shocking notification: his money was nearly gone. The IRA account was set to close, and the IRS was coming after Ortiz for early withdrawal fees. Ortiz insisted he did not withdraw any money from his account.

"He took my money, and he's not being held responsible for what he did."

"He did," Ortiz said referring to Nelms. "Somehow, somebody did. He's got it."

He went on to tell 13 Investigates how another family member remembered Nelms wearing a monitoring device on his ankle when they met back in June 2015. Ortiz said he was outraged by what he saw when he went online to Google Nelms' name.

"He's all over the media! This guy's a scam," he said.

13 Investigates showed Ortiz a mugshot of a man who went by the name Robert Nelms.

"That's him. That's the guy right there," Ortiz said. 13 Investigates wanted to be sure, and asked him again if the man in the picture was Ian.

"That's him, and he's still walking free," Ortiz said. "I mean unbelievable. He took my money, and he's not being held responsible for what he did."

The man who identified himself as Ian is also in fact Robert E. Nelms, a convicted criminal.

Nelms pleaded guilty to theft and securities fraud in Indianapolis. He is the former owner of multiple funeral homes and cemeteries across Indiana and Michigan.

Between 2008 and 2010, he was convicted of draining $24 million from perpetual care trust funds set aside for cemetery upkeep.

Indiana allowed him to serve his sentence in Michigan after he was convicted in that state, too.

The sentence included community correction, home detention and monitoring and probation through early 2017.

Timeline of events

2004 - Nelms buys Memory Gardens Management Corporation; begins scheme to steal $24 million

2006 - A New York funeral home owned by Nelms is investigated for illegal harvesting and the unauthorized selling of body parts. Nelms is the whistleblower in the case and not charged.

2008 - He is charged with theft and securities fraud for stealing $24 million from cemetery maintenance trust funds.

2009 - Nelms pleads guilty in Indiana; agrees to repay $20 million

2010 - Sentenced to four years in an Indiana work release program, four years of home detention and two years of probation; He pleads guilty in Michigan to theft and conversion; agrees to pay back $4 million, sentenced to a minimum of 20 months in community corrections; While under Michigan Parole, Nelms is banned from setting up any new businesses.

2013 - Discharged from parole in Michigan. Indiana sentence requires four years of monitoring and additional probation.

2015 - Nelms allegedly solicits investors and receives more than $500,000.

2017 - A Marion County judge modifies Nelms’ sentence; he’s granted an early release from probation.

2018 - Suspicions rise about the $500,000 in investments he received in 2015; the accounts are closed and IRS reportedly seeks penalties from investors for early withdrawal of funds; Nelms announces he owns Nicholson Funeral Home in Statesville, NC.

2019 - Investors, business associates and other sources contact 13 Investigates fearing a man who identified himself as “Ian Nelms” could actually be the convicted felon, Robert E. Nelms.

"Something's got to be done. This guy can't just come in and take our money," said Ortiz, who was sickened to learn that investment companies don't screen those designated as investment managers. Now Ortiz fears the worst.

"I think he's doing it again," he said.

13 Investigates first met Nelms in 2006 after learning he was connected to a bizarre funeral home story that was making national headlines. Nelms told 13 Investigates he discovered a gruesome illegal harvesting ring at a funeral home he purchased in Brooklyn, New York. Prepaid funeral money was also missing.

"There's nothing more, nothing more disgraceful in my opinion than to take something from someone who doesn't even have the ability to defend themselves," Nelms told 13 Investigates during an interview. In court records, investigators described finding the tissue and bones of more than 1,000 bodies taken and sold for millions of dollars. PVC pipe was replaced to keep families of the deceased from knowing what had taken place.

Nelms was never connected to the crimes in New York.

But two years later, he was arrested for stealing $24 million from cemetery trusts he acquired through the purchase of the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Greenwood, Indiana and associated properties across the state and into Michigan.

Recently Nelms' name resurfaced in Marion County Court after his former attorney was awarded a judgment against him for skipping out on paying his legal fees in the amount of $290,000.

Tracking the business exploits of Nelms since he was released from probation in Michigan has been no easy feat. He has moved around quite a bit and covered lots of ground. 13 Investigates found that he was affiliated with dozens of businesses, everything from flipping houses to what he knows best: the funeral industry. And the trail revealed something else — Nelms was hiding his past and living as Ian instead of Robert.

Clues from the calls and complaints led 13 Investigates hundreds of miles southeast to Statesville, North Carolina, a small town north of Charlotte.

That's where we met Matthew Troutman.

Matthew Troutman (WTHR, Bill Ditton)

"My mother had been telling me for several months that she was in negotiations to sell the funeral home to ... Mr. Nelms, Mr. Ian Nelms," Troutman said.

Troutman's family had owned Nicholson Funeral Home for 35 years before the sale in January 2019.

His father, Joseph, was the longtime funeral director but quit days before Nelms made a grand entrance.

"He stood up in front of everybody said 'I'm Ian Nelms. I'm part of this group CMS East, and I am the new owner of Nicholson Funeral Home,'" Matthew recalled.

Where did he get the money to buy a funeral home that was on the market for millions? Back in 2010, Nelms was forced to sell his assets to repay the $24 million he stole from cemetery trusts.

13 Investigates learned $22 million in restitution was made to pay back the trust accounts. The money was collected from the sale of assets he owned, according to Johnson County Court Records.

According to the Lynette Gray, the attorney appointed to oversee the receivership, money was even recovered from accounts overseas. At the end of the process, about $144,000 remained. The money was retained by Michael Wyman, who held a power of attorney for Nelms remaining businesses. Those businesses returned to Nelms included American Bronze Craft, Inc. in Judsonia, Arkansas

13 Investigates reviewed copies of state records detailing the transfer of ownership for the North Carolina funeral home.

Nelms' name is no where on Secretary of State documents. Don Hughes, a wealthy businessman, is the listed agent. Troutman told 13 Investigates Hughes was with Nelms the day he made his pronouncement at the funeral home. Hughes is also involved in some of the same businesses.

In fact, 13 Investigates found the address of a funeral home owned by Hughes is the same for CMS East Acquisition Corp, Cremation Society of SC-Westville Funerals, LLC and CES Trust of South Carolina, LLC. Funeral home staff confirmed both Nelms and Hughes worked together.

"He said he owned Cremation Society businesses all up and down the east coast: Greenville, South Carolina, Georgia (and) Florida," Matthew said. "This Ian Nelms is just leaving disaster wherever he goes."

According to Matthew, it didn't take long before Nelms broke with parts of the deal at Nicholson. He told 13 Investigates, Nelms left a tax burden with Troutman's mother, fired him despite promises to keep him employed and vowed to keep his father from working at a competing funeral home.

In fact, a lawsuit was filed by Nicholson Funeral, NFH, Inc. to try to block Joseph from working at Troutman Funeral home six miles away.

The lawsuit doesn't mention Nelms, but Matthew believes Nelms is calling all the shots. Nelms’ North Carolina Attorney said he is not part of NFH Inc. but refused to answer specific questions about Nicholson Funeral Home or Robert Nelms involvement.

Doug Eisele, the attorney for Joseph, can't talk about the case. But he confirmed he was also seeking the true identification of Nelms.

"Mother finally said, 'You know what? This guy has duped me,'" Matthew said. "She apologized to me, and obviously none of us are happy about it."

13 Investigates also showed Matthew a mugshot of Nelms and asked him to identify the man in the photo.

"That's him!," Matthew said. Once again the photo was that of Robert Nelms, the convicted felon.

13 Investigates contacted Nicholson Funeral Home in search of him.

"We want to talk with him about serious allegations of alleged fraud, judgments and the outstanding lawsuit," explained 13 Investigates Reporter Sandra Chapman. Two different staff members told 13 Investigates that Nelms is associated with the funeral home but was not working there that day.

13 Investigates decided to check out some of the other businesses connected to him.

Workers confirmed Nelms worked at Cemetery Equity Solutions in Greenville, but said he was not working that day.

13 Investigates got the same response from CMS East Acquisition Corp, Cremation Society of SC-Westville Funerals, LLC and CES Trust of South Carolina, LLC.

There was still one final location on an elaborate golf community near Spartanburg, South Carolina.

South Carolina records show the home was purchased by Nelms in Aug. 2018 for $608,000. On Sept. 3, 2019, Nelms initiated a quitclaim deed to sell the property to himself and his new wife as a survivorship for $5.

Ian Nelms home in Statesville, North Carolina. (WTHR, Bill Ditton)

13 Investigates knocked on the door of the home with a golf course and pond out back.

Nelms appeared. But just as he reached for the door, he quickly backed up and scurried away.

In the driveway of the home was a luxury car.

Moments later, his wife pulled in driving a luxury SUV wth Michigan plates.

Nelms wouldn't answer the text messages or emails sent to his phones and accounts, but his attorney called and confirmed Nelms passed along one of the emails.

Attorney Randall Hiller told 13 Investigates Nelms didn't want to talk about what happened 14 years ago.

13 Investigates explained it wasn't about 14 years ago but recent complaints about him and his business practices.

He didn't respond to our requests to explain the allegations to him.

Nelms was on the run, but his true identity had been exposed.

The funeral industry is regulated, but Nelms was not banned as a result of his previous convictions. Both Troutman and Ortiz believe more could have been done to protect them and their families.

"He doesn't care. Everything is about money to him," Matthew said. "He doesn't care whose lives he ruins."

"I don't have a house. I don't have nothing," Ortiz said. "He's just living the life with our money, and there's nothing we can do about it. I want my money back."

The investors are filing complaints with the Michigan Attorney General.

Case comparison

Robert Nelms
Pleaded guilty to theft and securities fraud in Marion County, Indiana

  • Sentenced to eight years: four years work release, four years home detention, two years probation; served consecutively with Michigan sentence
  • Ordered to pay approx $20 million in restitution to Cemetery Trust Funds

Pleaded guilty to embezzlement and conversion of funeral contracts

  • Sentenced to 20 months in prison
  • Ordered to pay $4,256,668.78 owed in restitution to Chapel Hill Trust Funds
  • Nelms repaid approximately $17.5 million of the $20 million owed to Cemetery Trust Funds in Indiana after selling his assets

Total restitution: $22 million

Marcus Schrenker

June 5, 2009
Schrenker pleaded guilty to intentionally crashing his plane as a way to escape his mounting financial and legal problems.
Sentenced months later to four years in prison

  • Ordered to pay $34,000 in restitution to the Coast Guard for its search and rescue expenses
  • Ordered to pay $871,000 in restitution to Harley-Davidson, the lien holder of the plane.
  • Ordered to pay $12 million after an Alabama judge ruled Schrenker sold a defective airplane.

Also pleaded guilty to three counts of securities fraud and two counts of working as an investment banker without being registered

  • Sentenced to 10 years in prison (to run consecutively with the sentence for the fake plane crash)
  • Ordered to pay $633,781 in restitution

Tim Durham
Found guilty of wire fraud

  • Sentenced to 50 years in prison
  • Ordered to pay $1.3 million in restitution
  • Disbarred by the Indiana Supreme Court