by: Greg Suskin Updated:
CHERAW, S.C. - A former funeral home director has been indicted on 106 criminal charges, many of them fraud.
Craig Norton, 50, owned Norton Funeral Home in Cheraw,
S.C. The funeral home closed in August 2011, and shortly after Norton disappeared.
Police said he made off with thousands of dollars stolen from his clients, some going back more than 15 years.
"He took care of people as long as business was good, but when the business went under, that's when the problem started," said Cheraw Police Chief Jay
Brooks, who also knew Norton personally.
He is accused of selling pre-need funeral contracts without a license, then pocketing the money. A pre-need funeral contract allows someone to pay for a funeral service years ahead of their death, so family members don't have to make arrangements during a time of grief and emotional stress.
Channel 9 was told that such contracts usually cost on average from
$5,000-$7,000 depending on the funeral.
Investigators said Norton was taking the money and using it for himself rather than placing the money in trust to be spent at the time of a funeral.
Most people were not aware that their money was gone or that Norton's funeral home had gone under until the death of a loved one, when calls to the business went unanswered. That's when victims began calling Cheraw police.
"It was hard to talk to these people because they were all so upset," Brooks said. "We felt very sorry for them."
Norton turned himself in to police last month to face charges. He's out of jail on a $100,000 secured bond.
The South Carolina Department of Consumer Affairs began overseeing violations of pre-need contracts in 2006.
At that time there was a reimbursement fund set up to repay a family for funeral costs if the funeral home they had a contract with went out of business.
The fund receives a small fee every time a licensed funeral home enters into a pre-need contract with a family.
Those fees can then be used to reimburse them in a case like this one.
However, victims must apply for that
money, which is why Cheraw police still want people to come forward if they had such a contract with Norton Funeral Home.
Consumer affairs said that families who apply should not lose any money. So far, four families have received that reimbursement from the state in the Norton case. None of the original money taken has been recovered.
Last year, state lawmakers made it a felony for a funeral home to violate a pre-need funeral contract. However, the Cheraw cases date back several years, and Norton faces only misdemeanor charges.
Those charges carry possible fines of $1,000 to $5,000 for each of the 106 counts.