Mount Hope, Valley View cemeteries are shutting down

Mount Hope Cemetery in Belleville and Valley View Cemetery in Edwardsville are shutting down, said a landscaping maintenance worker who was told Saturday he no longer has a job at Mount Hope.

It's not yet clear whether existing burial contracts will be honored, whether new ones can be purchased or how exactly the action will affect consumers.

The woman that the employee, Clyde Mager, said was running the cemeteries is Carol Horton, the daughter of a previous owner who died earlier this year.

Horton, before hanging up on a reporter Wednesday, only said: "I haven't been operating (anything). I've been paying them to work, that's all I've done."

Earlier this month, the Illinois comptroller's officer announced it is starting the process of revoking the company's license to sell prepaid services and putting the cemeteries under the control of a receiver.

Property tax records show Forever Illinois Inc., which owned the cemeteries before Mid-America Growth and Development Corp. bought them in 2005, had purchased the cemeteries back from Mid-America in June 2006. Mid-America's president, Hillman Crowell, was required by law to notify the state of the sale, and he did not, according to the comptroller's office. Further complicating the case was the death of the 85-year-old Crowell in a car crash earlier this year.

The cemeteries were last placed in receivership in 1997 after previous owner Larry Esterlen took money from the cemeteries' trust funds.

The comptroller's office last year reported that more than $300,000 was missing from more than 450 prepaid burial accounts at the two cemeteries. People visiting those buried at the cemeteries have complained about overgrown grass and weeds and damaged headstones.

Forever Illinois President Brent Cassity could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Forever Illinois is affiliated with National Prearranged Services Inc., which is missing potentially millions of dollars in prepaid funeral accounts in several states and is now under the control of a receiver in Texas.

No one has been charged in connection with the missing funds at Mount Hope and Valley View. Illinois State Police Master Sgt. Dave Wasmuth said Wednesday he was "neither confirming or denying" a police investigation.

Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert said city staff members are monitoring Mount Hope Cemetery, and police are taking statements from those who reported the closure to City Hall. Eckert plans to talk with state legislators for guidance on how to handle the cemetery issue.

"It appears the situation is now turning for the worse," he said. "It concerns me greatly."

He said he can't commit the city to maintaining the cemeteries "because once we start it, it may be assumed we're going to do it forever. Right now we're not in a position to take on a second cemetery."

Eckert also said some state officers have advised him not to get the city involved in the case because of pending investigations.

Edwardsville Police Lt. Scott Evers said the city has made Valley View its top priority. He is discussing the situation with the state comptroller's office, with the state's attorney's office, and with an attorney for Forever Illinois. He said no consumer has thus far been denied a burial, and that a couple of cemetery employees have volunteered to continue performing the burials on an emergency basis.

He said that if necessary, the city will maintain the cemetery temporarily.

"The city's not going to let it fall into disrepair and look as unkept as it has in the past," Evers said.