Ron Fleenor is shown at his brother Ken’s grave on Tuesday in Surgoinsville. Jeff Bobo photo.
SURGOINSVILLE — On May 15, 2012, Ron Fleenor paid $1,249 to the Hawkins County Memorial Gardens in Surgoinsville to have a bronze marker, which was already provided for free by the military, placed over the grave of his brother Ken.
That was nearly 19 months ago, and as of Tuesday morning the marker still hadn’t been placed on the grave. There’s only the small temporary aluminum marker that funeral homes typically stick in the ground until the permanent marker is placed.
Since making the payment, he’s spoken to cemetery manager Vickie Ringley twice.
This past August, after Fleenor told a groundskeeper he was about to file a lawsuit, Ringley called Fleenor and promised to place the marker over Ken’s grave as soon as possible.
A month later, Fleenor caught Ringley in her office.
At that time, Ken Fleenor’s bronze military marker was in Ringley’s office in an unopened box among a stack of similar packages, which presumably contained other grave markers still waiting to be placed.
Fleenor has contacted the sheriff’s office, the attorney general’s office, and the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance, Burial Services division, and no one can help him.
An attorney from the state Burial Services division told Fleenor there had been 23 or 24 complaints filed against Ringley for similar issues.
“He said they were trying to resolve the situation without any legal activity, if possible,” Fleenor said.
Fleenor said he’s reached the point now where he’s ready to file a lawsuit against Ringley and the cemetery.
He’s got a lot of company.
Four lawsuits have been filed this year against Ringley in Hawkins County Sessions Court, three of which have already been resolved in favor of the plaintiffs, and one which has yet to be served. Court officials say Ringley is dodging the process servers on that fourth lawsuit.
By coincidence, while Fleenor was being interviewed by the Times-News at the cemetery Tuesday morning, Pat Barton of Surgoinsville stopped by to see if his sister’s marker had been placed yet.
Barton’s sister, Mary E. Huff, died this past February. At that time, her husband, John Huff, of Gray, paid Ringley $3,800 for a double marker, Barton said.
Barton said not only was there no permanent marker, there wasn’t even a temporary marker from the funeral home over Mary’s grave.
“There isn’t anything there but six inches of grass,” Barton said.
The Times-News spoke to John Huff by telephone Tuesday evening.
Huff, who is a disabled World War II veteran, had already decided that if the marker wasn’t up Tuesday he was going to see a lawyer.
He said that losing his wife was hard enough, but being “swindled” out of $3,800 makes it a lot harder.
“It makes me feel really sad about it,” Huff said. “I feel like I want to just go down there and get on her about it, or do something. I hesitate about just confronting her with it, but still yet, it’s a sad situation.”
The actual number of state Burial Services division complaints that have been filed against Hawkins County Memorial Gardens and Ringley couldn’t be confirmed Tuesday.
Hawkins County Sheriff’s Office Detective Ken Sturgill told the Times-News Tuesday he has investigated approximately 20 complaints against Ringley. Most of the complaints pertain to people who have paid for services such as placing headstones, and the stones haven’t been placed.
Sturgill added, however, that he hasn’t come across an incident yet where Ringley could face criminal prosecution.
“Through our investigation we called the granite companies and the companies she uses to order headstones, or the marble, or the brass,” Sturgill said. “Based on her records that we subpoenaed, she’s paying for them. They’re ordered and paid for. It’s just, where they went from there is the question. We served a search warrant in her office and actually found some of them in boxes in her office that had not been opened, or attempted to be placed on the site.”
Sturgill added, “Her excuse was she doesn’t have anybody who can lay them. If we knew her intent was for her to take the money without the intentions of ordering the stone, or something of that nature, that’s where it becomes criminal. Without proving intent, it becomes a civil (court) issue. Through our investigation we were finding there was no intent to defraud, so there was nothing criminally we could do.”
Sturgill said he has been recommending to victims that they file a civil lawsuit against Ringley. He could relate to the problems with getting that suit served, however.
“She’s hard to find,” Sturgill said. “She won’t even answer our phone calls.”
On Tuesday, the Times-News unsuccessfully attempted to contact Ringley at her office, via the cemetery office phone, as well as on a cell phone number listed for her in one of the lawsuits. There’s no home phone number listed in her name in the public directory.
The three recent Hawkins County Sessions Court lawsuit judgments against Ringley included a default judgment issued by Judge J. Todd Ross on Oct. 29 for $6,000 plus interest to Frank and Connie Coleman of Mooresburg who paid for two grave sites and didn’t receive a deed.
On Sept. 24, Ringley agreed to a $2,345 settlement with Mike Williams of Rogersville for failure to install a marker.
Also on Sept. 24, Ringley agreed to an $800 settlement with Noemi Lawson of Rogersville for failure to provide and install a gravestone within a reasonable time.
The pending lawsuit that has not yet been served on Ringley was filed by Roger and Linda Williams of Rogersville in the amount of $7,000 for failure to produce and install a gravestone. That case has a pending hearing date of Jan. 14 before Judge Ross.
Ringley has a history of courtordered financial settlements not in her favor. In 2009 there was a $14,000 settlement against Ringley in favor of Discovery Bank; and in 2010 there was a $19,000 court settlement against Ringley in favor of Discovery Bank.
Fleenor said he got the “runaround” from the state Burial Services division. However, he believes the state department that licenses cemetery operators should have the power to pull a cemetery’s business license when the operator has conducted improper business tactics.
“It doesn’t seem to me that she’s able to run the cemetery properly as a business like she should,” Fleenor said. “If she can’t, then someone else should be in charge of the cemetery, in my opinion.”