Second Guilty Verdict In Cemetery Theft Case

The trial of the second of two co-defendants, caretakers of the Belmont Memorial Cemetery, ended Friday with a guilty verdict.

Keith Dwayne Baratie, 51, was taken into custody and will be sentenced Feb. 19.

Baratie and his wife, Karen Sue Ellen Neff, were accused of the theft of nearly $300,000 from the cemetery. Neff was found guilty of forgery, theft, and securing writing by deception in January and sentenced this past Monday to 4.5 years for the third degree felonies.

Baratie’s trial began Tuesdaya After reviewing voluminous financial documentation, the jury deliberated for close to 4 hours. Baratie was found guilty of aiding and abetting Neff in forgery and aiding and abetting her in securing writing by deception, and he was found guilty of theft, all of an amount more than $150,000.

Belmont County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Kevin Flanagan said the charges are third degree felonies which carry the same sentences of three years each, although the securing writing by deception and forgery could be merged depending upon the judge’s decision.

“Essentially it’s the exact same as what Karen Neff got, except he was the principal on the theft and the aider and abettor on the forgery and securing writing by deception,” he said.

Neff was ordered to pay restitution of $282,240 to the cemetery, now the responsibility of Richland Township. Flanagan said the restitution order could be altered to be shared jointly between her and Baratie.

During her sentencing hearing, Neff maintained that she and Baratie were the legitimate successors to the Belmont Memorial Cemetery Association. According to the criminal complaint, Baratie and Neff presented themselves as the Belmont County Cemetery Association to sell the oil and gas rights for the cemetery for $282,240 in 2013, then spent the money.

The prosecution has made the case that the cemetery association dissolved years ago.

Vavra thanked the jury for their care and attention during the proceedings.

“We’re pleased with the outcome,” Flanagan said afterward, adding that commended local detectives with the sheriff’s office as well as Ohio Attorney General’s office in their investigation. “We’re very pleased with what law enforcement did on this case. This was a very tedious and time-consuming case. We went through hundreds if not thousands of pages of documents in order to determine the appropriate amount of money that was stolen.”

Flanagan commented on the lasting damage as people who have made burial arrangements must now assure themselves.

“We’ve gotten e-mails and messages from people wondering if their plots are still secure,” he said.

According to the Richland Township Trustees, an area funeral home has the cemetery records and the state has control of the cemetery accounts. Flanagan said the records should soon be turned over to the township. Flanagan said there is no money remaining in the account. Currently, the township is unable to do more than cut the grass.

“Here’s the situation: if you bought a plot and have your deed, you can be buried there, but they’re not selling any new plots at this juncture. … The problem is we can’t be assured at this juncture that everybody who purchased a plot ultimately is listed on the cemetery map.”

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