The cemetery, located just off of Highway 11-W near Surgoinsville at 536 Carters Valley Loop, was purchased at auction last June for $15,000 by the lone bidder, MH Squared, a Florida based investment company.
Surgoinsville accountant Hannah Speaks assisted MH Squared with paperwork needed to move the sale forward.
But, when the state indicated that MH Squared would be required to establish a Trust Account and Perpetual Care account totaling $200,000, MH Squared backed out of the sale.
In receivership since 2014
Receivership Management Inc. representative Robert Moore, who oversees HGMG, stated that in light the sale falling through, Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance Commissioner Julie Mix McPeak is reviewing her options.
The court has set a status hearing for May 10, and in the meantime the receivership remains in place, Moore added.
"For almost a year now we thought we had a buyer, and the buyer has been working with the state to purchase it," Speaks said. "The buyer basically disagreed with whether he should have to fund the perpetual care and trust accounts that she (former owner Vickie Ringley) drained. The state said he did have to, and he did not fee like he could fork out that kind of money. Therefore he's withdrawn his bid."
The history of the criminal case
On Feb. 17, 2017, Ringley accepted a plea agreement in which she was sentenced to 10 years in exchange for pleading guilty to one count of theft over $60,000, one count of money laundering, one count of forgery and one count of felony violation of cemetery regulations.
At the time, she had already been in jail for two years, and she was released at the end of February that year on probation on the condition she make a $500 per month restitution payment. Those payments are intended to reimburse her 360 victims.
The investigation into Ringley’s illegal activities at the cemetery began in August 2013 after the Hawkins County Sheriff’s Office received multiple complaints that cemetery clients hadn’t received goods and services she’d been paid to provide.
In January 2014, Ringley was interviewed by investigators, at which time she admitted that she didn’t have a trust account for the cemetery as required by law, and that she was using money paid by cemetery clients to pay her personal expenses, including her mortgage and utilities.
She also admitted she was using money from new clients to attempt to provide services to old clients in what can best be described as a pyramid scheme.
Ringley failed to place headstones and markers after accepting payment; failed to provide deeds after the sale of cemetery plots; forged signatures and notarization on documents; and sold plots multiple times to different people.
Questions about restitution
Ringley has made her restitution payments as required, which means Clerk of Courts Randy Collier has collected $12,000.
Collier told the Times News Monday, however, that he is awaiting a court order on how those funds should be distributed.
Aside from being an accountant for the former cemetery buyer, Speaks is also one of the 360 victims.
Her family paid Ringley for a headstone for her father, which was never installed. Eventually they had to pay a second time for the headstone to get it installed.
Speaks said she has never been contacted by anyone to inquire how much she is owed by Ringley.
"As a victim, how do they even know what they owe us, when no one has asked us to fill out a claim," she said.
Concerns about maintaining the cemetery
Speaks said the receiver had the property mowed five times last year, which is not enough to keep the graves presentable. Every week she and her family mow the hill where her father and other family members are buried.
But, that's only about one-third of the entire property. Other families mow sections or specific graves, but its not consistent.
"We will mow it for as long as we have to, and I will call the state as many times as I need to," Speaks said. "We will just continue on, simply because there’s no other choice. My dad, grandparents, aunt, uncle, and many close friends that I’ve lost are buried there. My heart won’t let me just walk away from it and let the weeds take over.
She added, "My plea now is the same as it has been for six years. I want the state to get something done. Get some closure on this. I think we’ve been very patient, but we’ve waited long enough.”