What's making it hard to uncover some of the alleged fraud, such as double booking grave plots and vaults, is the victims won't know they've been scammed until someone dies.
That's why the Third Judicial District Attorney General's office in Rogersville wants to speak to anyone who has purchased a grave plot or mausoleum vault at the Hawkins County Memorial Gardens (HCMG) — particularly plots/vaults sold by from former owner/operator Vickie Ringley — regardless of how long ago the purchase was made.
An investigator with the attorney general's office will be in Rogersville Wednesday, Thursday and Friday to speak with potential victims.
The HCMG is located at 536 Carters Valley Loop, just off of Highway 11-W on the western outskirts of Surgoinsville.
Assistant Attorney General Lindsey Lane told the Times-News Monday there are as many as 200 potential fraud victims, some of whom may have bought a plot or a vault that had already been sold.
Ringley has been accused of taking money for work that wasn't performed, such as setting grave stones, and she has had civil court judgments ordered against her in multiple lawsuits.
In at least one civil lawsuit, however, she was convicted of double booking grave plots.
That lawsuit claimed that on Nov. 2, 2004, Ringley sold a Mount Carmel woman two plots beside her grandparents, but it was discovered in January that Ringley had also sold the same plots to the woman's cousin in 1998, and that they owned the same plots.
Ringley's license to operate HCMG was suspended in February, but Lane said there are still potential victims in the community who don't even know there's a criminal investigation underway.
"We're trying to wind up our investigation, as far as it pertains to how many victims are out there, and focus more on the charges," Lane said. "We're trying to make one last effort to inform the public that, even if they aren't aware that anything is wrong with (their grave/vault purchase), we'd like to see their paperwork to make sure their plots haven't been resold. Or, if they have paid pre-need burial services or they have purchased a marker, a vault, or a crypt, they let us know so that we can run their information against what we already have to see if they are a potential victim in a case."
Lane added, "We've had a problem with records, and there's no master list of who has purchased things."
Last year more than 20 people filed complaints against Ringley with the Hawkins County Sheriff's Office claiming they paid her for gravestones to be placed on graves or other services that hadn't been performed.
There were several subsequent lawsuits filed against Ringley with similar allegations.
In January Ringley was charged with forgery for cashing a check written to the cemetery, but that charge was later dropped.
In February, Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance (TDCI) Commissioner Julie Mix McPeak entered an order of summary suspension against Ringley, prohibiting her from "any further operation of the cemetery pending the outcome of formal proceedings."
Ringley's TDCI suspension order cites numerous grounds for her emergency suspension, including her failure to maintain a required trust account for consumers' funds, and alleged conversion of those funds for personal use.
Lane said the attorney general's office wanted to give the TDCI first crack at Ringley, and impose civil penalties before criminal charges were placed.
"That is a whole different debacle, to let (the TDCI) sort through what they're going to do civilly, and we're just tired of waiting," Lane said. "We want to make sure people know we are proceeding in the investigation, and with charges, but when those will be initiated, I don't know."
Lane added, "I know our office gets a call at least one per week from a funeral home asking where to put a person. We really can't advise on that. Our office will evaluate all of the information, and proceed (with criminal charges) if at all possible."
Lane said anyone who has done cemetery business with Ringley should visit to the Rogersville attorney general's office in person at 110 East Kyle Street on Wednesday, Thursday or Friday during business hours to meet an investigator in person; or they can call (423) 921-0567.