Whistleblower 9: Funeral home closes, leaving some asking where their money went

by: Greg Suskin Updated:

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CHERAW, S.C. - Leroy Cheek, 79, lost his wife five years ago.  When he buried her in July 2007, he paid for her funeral and decided to go ahead and pay for his own.

"I didn't want my kids to have to worry about it.  It was all taken care of and everything was paid for," Cheek said.

It didn't happen that way.  Cheek just learned that the funeral home he gave almost $9,000 to is now out of business.

"I just couldn't believe it. I really couldn't," he said.

Norton Funeral Home in Cheraw, S.C., operated for more than 20 years.  Last October, the home performed its last funeral and suddenly closed. Police said the owner, Craig Norton, left town and hasn't been seen in Cheraw in months.

Eyewitness News visited the large two-story business Tuesday.  There's a for-sale sign in the yard and a note on the door saying the property is now bank-owned.  There's no furniture inside.  The realtor said it's been listed for sale since January.

"I was surprised he went out of business," said fellow funeral home owner Kip Kiser.

Kiser said he doesn't know why Norton went out of business, but he has been helping some former Norton clients who have come to him when their loved ones have died.

"When they realize the firm is out of business, their concern is they're not going to be able to obtain any funds," Kiser said.

Many funeral homes across the state sell pre-need contracts, which is simply paying for a funeral in full in advance.  Funeral homes must have a special license to sell such contracts.

The state's consumer affairs website lists all the funeral homes that have such as license.  Norton Funeral Home is not listed.   Cheraw Police Chief Jay Brooks said the funeral home never was licensed to do pre-need contracts, and that's why he turned the investigation over to the state authorities.

Danny Collins, a spokesman for the consumer affairs office in Columbia, said they have been investigating Norton Funeral Home since October.  That's about the same time neighbors told us the last funeral was held there.

Collins also said that Norton did not keep good records, and the agency has had trouble tracking down those business records.

Brooks said at one point police believed Norton was in the Charleston area, but now his whereabouts are unclear.

When Channel 9 asked the consumer affairs office if they were actively looking for Norton, we were told, "no comment."

Fortunately for those who gave Norton money, they can get their money back.  The consumer affairs office has what's called a pre-need contract recovery fund.  It was started six years ago when a funeral home in Saluda County when out of business and its clients lost their money.

Collins said that money is available to reimburse anyone who's pre-paid for a funeral and still has their paperwork.  He said the fund sometimes pays out several thousand dollars a month, but in other months, it isn't used at all.

"I trusted that man.  I really did.  I trusted him," said Cheek, who spent that $9,000 with Norton in 2007.  He's not worried about the money now.  He just wants to make sure his burial is still paid for thanks to the recovery fund, and doesn't want to worry his children.

"I can't believe that man would just take that money and run, just like that," he said.

The consumer affairs office is still investigating Norton and his business, but has not filed any charges yet.

As to why the funeral home closed eight months ago, neighbors and acquaintances told Eyewitness News they didn't want to speculate.