SALUDA, S.C. - As five rows of elderly victims sat nearby, a Saluda County funeral home owner pleaded guilty Wednesday to selling phony burial contracts to older people to support a cocaine habit and vacations to the Bahamas.
In an emotionally-charged hearing in a Saluda courtroom, Joseph T. Palmer pleaded guilty to 43 counts of breach of trust with fraudulent intent and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Once he is released, Circuit Judge J.C. Nicholson Jr. ordered, he will spend 20 years on probation while he repays $219,866 in restitution to the victims.
"He ambushed the elderly. He stole big from those who had little. And he took their last earthly wish: a proper burial," 11th Circuit Solicitor Donnie Myers told the judge before sentencing.
Mr. Palmer, a 34-year-old father of six boys, accepted thousands of dollars from each victim for pre-need contracts for funeral services from 1991 to 2000. But instead of depositing the money into trust funds, as required by South Carolina law, he spent the money on drugs, business expenses and vacations.
"I developed a drug addiction," Mr. Palmer told the judge. "I thought I was in control when the drug was in control of me."
Mr. Palmer operated funeral homes in Ridge Spring and Saluda, sometimes without a license. His scam started as early as 1991 and continued until an 80-year-old woman paid $14,302 for a contract last year. The woman's friend became suspicious at the high cost and alerted authorities, Mr. Myers said.
The solicitor said the South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division began an investigation and got an arrest warrant for fraud. News of the arrest led other victims to inquire about their promised burial contracts.
"It was like a snowball effect," Mr. Myers said. "I have really never seen something like this in South Carolina."
Investigators searched Mr. Palmer's bank accounts but never recovered any money.
Three victims told the judge about how Mr. Palmer befriended everyone in the community and then violated their trust.
"People just loved him," said Daisy P. Porter, whose mother bought a fraudulent contract. "But he betrayed all these people. The community feels there must be some justice."
Led to a podium by court officials because he is blind, 74-year-old victim Bruce Timmerman told the judge that most victims went to the Cumbee-Palmer Funeral Home because of trust in the previous owners.
"Everybody trusted Cumbee-Palmer Funeral Home. We bought on the basis of the Cumbee name," Mr. Timmerman said. "But (Mr. Palmer) took our trust and ground it in the dirt."
Margie Minick said her mother, father and uncle all bought fraudulent contracts from Mr. Palmer. Her father died last week, and the family must deal with that expense despite the pre-paid contract with Mr. Palmer.
"We hope and pray Joseph will understand what he has done to all these senior citizens, who have no money left," Ms. Minick said. "In a small town, a local boy has really hurt Saluda, Ridge Spring, Monetta, Batesburg - all of them."
In a half-hour presentation for mercy, defense attorney Jerry Screen painted his client as a community leader who lost control of himself because of a drug addiction. "He had a monster growing inside of him," Mr. Screen said.
The defendant's wife, Christy Palmer, also addressed the court, saying her husband has been a wonderful father to her children. The couple have been together 21/2 years, she said.
Mr. Screen and the defendant's church pastor asked the judge not to lock up Mr. Palmer for long so he could have time to work on reimbursement. When Judge Nicholson announced a 20-year jail sentence, Mrs. Palmer began sobbing uncontrollably in court and was comforted by friends.
After the defendant and his supporters left the courtroom, Judge Nicholson took the unusual step of advising the victims to get together and hire an attorney for a civil suit. He said they would likely never see a dime from Mr. Palmer.
Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (803) 648-1395.