2 more guilty pleas in prearranged funerals case

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Two more people pleaded guilty Tuesday in a scheme that bilked tens of thousands of customers of a suburban St. Louis prearranged funeral company out of up to $600 million.

Randall K. Sutton, 67, and Howard A. Wittner, 76, of the now-defunct National Prearranged Funerals Inc. both entered pleas in U.S. District Court in St. Louis.

Sutton pleaded to bank fraud, mail fraud, money laundering and misappropriation of an insurance premium. Wittner pleaded guilty to making false statements intended to deceive insurance regulators, and to willfully permitting a felon to engage in the business of insurance.

Sentencing is Nov. 7 for the men and three former colleagues — founder James Douglas Cassity, his son Brent Douglas Cassity, and employee Sharon Nekol Province. James and Brent Cassity pleaded guilty last week. Province pleaded guilty in June.

“It was a long, hard-fought plea by both sides,” Sutton’s attorney, Calvin Matthews, said. “Our client ultimately determined to take what he thought was best for him.”

National Prearranged Services sold policies in several states from 1992 until 2008. Customers typically paid a single sum of up to $10,000 to cover the cost of future funeral services and related expenses.

Prosecutors said it was little more than a Ponzi scheme, with money from as many as 150,000 customers used to enrich the company’s officers and others. Prosecutors said new business provided the money needed to pay for funerals that previous customers had paid for in advance.

Sutton held several positions with the Clayton-based company, including president. He was also chief executive officer of an affiliated insurance company, Lincoln Memorial Life Insurance Co.

Wittner served as a trustee of the Cassity family trust whose holdings included National Prearranged Services and Lincoln Memorial Life. Federal prosecutors said he made false statements to the New York Department of Insurance to obtain approval for the trust to acquire a medical malpractice insurance firm.

Wittner also served as a director of National Prearranged Services and its affiliates.

Trial is scheduled to begin Aug. 5 for a sixth former associate, David R. Wulf.

The U.S. Attorney’s office sought plea deals, requiring up to 10 years in prison, in part because the trials figured to be long and expensive. U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan has said the trials could last three months.

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