6 sentenced in prearranged funerals case

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Six officials in a suburban St. Louis prearranged funeral company were sentenced Thursday to prison terms ranging from 18 months to 10 years for fraud that cost customers from around the country about $450 million.

U.S. District Judge Jean Hamilton said during sentencing that officers of the now-defunct National Prearranged Funerals Inc., based in Clayton, Mo., defrauded nearly 98,000 customers in several states. The scheme also victimized hundreds of funeral homes and many financial institutions, Hamilton said.

The sentences culminated a lengthy and complicated investigation that lasted for several years. Federal prosecutors described the company as nothing more than an elaborate Ponzi scheme.

FBI special agent Dean C. Bryant called it the largest corporate fraud case prosecuted in the Eastern District of Missouri.

National Prearranged Funerals operated from 1992 to 2008, selling funeral plans in advance with the promise that the buyers’ money would be kept safe until the time of the funeral. Customers typically paid a single sum of up to $10,000 to cover the cost of future funeral services and related expenses.

All told, customers paid more than $150 million to the company. Prosecutors said that money should have been held in trust and increased at least three-fold in value but was instead used to enrich the company’s officers and others.

Company owner James Cassity was sentenced to more than nine years in prison. His son, Brent Cassity, was sentenced to five years.

Other prison terms include seven years for chief financial officer Randall Sutton, three years for attorney Howard Wittner, 18 months for employee Sharon Nekol Province, and 10 years for investment adviser David Wulf.

Wulf got the longer sentence because he chose to go to trial rather than reach a plea agreement, as the others did. He was convicted in a 13-day trial this summer. He has appealed.

Hamilton also ordered the Cassitys, Sutton, Wulf and Province to pay restitution of $435 million, and Wittner to pay restitution of $10.5 million.

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