Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Plea Deals Are Offered to 5 in Pre-Paid Funeral Case

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Plea Deals Are Offered to 5 in Pre-Paid Funeral Case

Article excerpt

ST. LOUIS * Five criminal defendants accused of roles in a pre- arranged funeral scam that could cost as much as $600 million have been offered plea deals that would allow them to avoid life sentences, federal prosecutors said Friday.

In three brief court hearings Friday, prosecutors said a lawyer and two men who once helped run National Prearranged Services Inc. were offered between five years and nearly 10 years in prison if they plead guilty.

Similar deals offered to two others were detailed earlier this week.

If convicted at a months-long trial scheduled to start in August, the men face sentences of up to life in prison, Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Birmingham said in court.

The public disclosure of the deals is unusual and new, triggered by a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year that said defendants must be informed about any plea offers extended by prosecutors.

U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan said Thursday a trial would be costly, could take at least three months and would require employee time that could be spent on other cases. "Anything we do is at the expense of something else," he said, adding that the offers were an attempt to "intelligently marshal our office's resources."

But he stressed that all of the defendants are presumed to be innocent and have the right to fight the charges.

Prosecutors say National Prearranged Services played to consumers' fears by promising to prevent their heirs from being burdened by high funeral costs. But instead of investing consumer payments as promised, the defendants diverted the money to their own use, used it in ways that weren't disclosed or used it to pay for funerals that were funded through prior contracts.

They said the scam affected up to 150,000 customers who paid up to $10,000 each and could eventually cost $450 to $600 million. Callahan said Thursday there are no losses to date, but as more people who bought plans die, losses will pile up. …

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