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Southern Memorial Gardens concerns addressed

By MEGHAN RUSSELLStaff writer

Two Calvert County residents announced their intentions to assume operations of Southern Memorial Gardens during a Tuesday night meeting attended by a few hundred community members with invested interests in the Dunkirk cemetery.

Concerned families with prepaid services and burial plots packed the pews at Grace Brethren Church in Owings as they heard from speakers who held the informational meeting as a means of wading through the complex cemetery history and what the future may hold for it. Then a petition circulated the church asking for support of new potential ownership.

Together with Doug Lodge, the chief finance officer of Southern Memorial Gardens and 25-year Calvert resident, Raymond Wood Funeral Home owner and 22-year county resident Terry Wood announced her plans to resume control of the cemetery once current owners George and Daniel Martin, both of whom attended the meeting with their families, come to a resolution with a bankruptcy trustee in bankruptcy court. She and Lodge already sent a letter of intent to the trustee, Gary Rosen, she said. She also said she could not disclose any costs at this time, as plans are now in a negotiation period.

“Both of us know full well what we’re getting into,” Wood said. “We are aware of the financial issues. ... We are also aware of the daily workings of a cemetery and operational costs. I worked there for four years.”

Badtec Inc., the Martins’ company, which currently owns the 30-acre cemetery, was banned from continuing services last July after violating a cease and desist order issued by the Maryland Office of Cemetery Oversight accusing the Martins of operating without a valid license because they were reportedly struggling financially. The cemetery was foreclosed about the same time and the Martins filed for bankruptcy in December.

Meanwhile, vegetation became overrun at the cemetery, and community volunteers have taken care of it.

“It should be a jewel in northern Calvert and a place of peace and comfort,” Wood said, adding that she feels equipped to deal with state regulations since she already owns two other state licenses. Her intention is to honor all contracts made with the cemetery; based on bank negotiations, she feels this will not be an issue, she said. “It is the only way we can go forward.”

Susan Ballenger, a Dunkirk real estate agent whose mother is buried at the cemetery, whose family has other plots waiting there and who organized the event, said she supports Wood and Lodge in their efforts to take over the cemetery.

“We need someone in the county,” she said.

Ballenger said, “It’s lovely that we come together and cut the grass,” but permanent ownership is needed.

Lodge, speaking on behalf of the Martin family, took the audience back through the history of the cemetery from when Badtec purchased it in 2006 from Larry Deffenbaugh, who now is incarcerated for defrauding hundreds of clients.

“We are not here in any way to attack any agency or any organization or any person. We are simply here to share the facts as we know them,” Lodge said.

The sale was an asset sale, Lodge said, meaning Badtec purchased only the assets, not Deffenbaugh’s company. As clients visited the new cemetery owners, however, they discovered many contracts had gone missing; some were recovered later, and others had been burned.

OCO tasked the Martins with remedying the situation, but the District Court ruled they could not be held responsible. Nonetheless, Badtec reimbursed every defrauded customer in full, Lodge continued. In the meantime, OCO demanded Deffenbaugh’s accounting records and discovered he had gone years without performing mandatory audits and had committed fraud to cover it up. Again, the Martins resolved the issue, he said.

Then in 2009, when the economy spiraled downward and cemetery revenues dropped by more than 70 percent as more people chose cremation, the OCO deemed Badtec financially unsound and revoked its license. Lodge said revenues increased by 67 percent in 2011, but the OCO did not reinstate the license and instead issued the cease and desist order, and Daniel Martin received 35 criminal charges of misrepresentation and operating without a license.

For several weeks last summer a handful of deceased waited in limbo, preserved in funeral homes, until the Circuit Court allowed burials to continue at the cemetery providing they are performed by an independent contractor — the situation that remains today.

“It’s a sad situation where it’s your final resting place — now you don’t know if you’re gonna get to rest there,” Ballenger said, asking everyone who attended to help by petitioning. “We are a family with a common goal. ... Ultimately we will see victory together.”

mrussell@somdnews.com