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Berrien Springs funeral home owner charged

Published 10:25pm Thursday, August 5, 2010

By JESSICA SIEFF

Niles Daily Star

Matthew Purchase, owner of Legacy Family Funeral Services in Berrien Springs, is expected to appear in court later this month to face 15 felony charges after a preliminary audit of the business showed he may have embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Detectives from the Michigan State Police Niles Post and investigators from the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth (DLEG) announced they are investigating Legacy Family Funeral Services, 8747 U.S. 31, Berrien Springs, prior to the announcement that Purchase would be charged with one count of criminal enterprise, a 20-year offense, and 14 counts of embezzlement, some which carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

Berrien County assistant prosecutor Mike Sepic said Thursday there is the possibility — should others come forward as possible victims — Purchase could face additional charges. Det. Fabian Suarez of the Michigan State Police Niles Post said he had spent most of his day Thursday fielding calls from additional victims.

“We’ve already got more,” Suarez said. “Whether or not there will be additional charges, that will be up to the prosecutor.”

As the case continues in court, the issue of restitution will be at the heart of it all.

“So many people have lost so much money,” Suarez said.

Purchase provided police with a list of victims — people who had entered into a prepaid contract with purchase for funeral services. That money should have been transferred into an escrow account.

After DELEG began its investigation last year, Suarez said it was found Purchase “wasn’t forwarding that money — he was just spending it.”

Police started with a list of about 60 names, “but I definitely think we’ll go over that number,” said Suarez. “Right now we’re just trying to track down the new victims.”

Asked if there was a chance those victims would ever see their money back, Suarez said, “I don’t know.”

The case is being handled by prosecutor Steve Pierangeli, who Sepic said is out of the office until next week.

According to a release from the prosecutor’s office regarding the investigation, a complaint was made against the business by a customer who was unable to obtain refunds of prepaid funeral arrangement funds. These funds are required to be deposited in an escrow account for use by the funeral home or to be returned to the customer at their request.

Investigators have identified at least 52 victims of this suspected embezzlement.

Auditors from DLEG obtained a complaint regarding the escrow funds and initiated an audit of prepaid funeral arrangements and prepaid funeral insurance. The results of the preliminary audit indicate approximately $207,000 was not placed into escrow as required by state law.

The Niles State Police Post became involved in the investigation in June and is proceeding with a criminal investigation of the operators of Legacy Family Funeral Services. Sepic could not confirm the reported amount of $207,000 and said the investigation was ongoing.

A preliminary hearing will be held Aug. 17, Sepic said.

As for what might happen to Purchase or whether a plea agreement will come into play, Sepic said, “it’s kind of early to tell.”

If you have not been contacted by investigators from the Michigan State Police and you have purchased a prepaid contract from Legacy Family Funeral Services, contact the Michigan State Police Niles Post at 683-4411.

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