Galilee cemetery owner: ‘Guilty’

Galilee Memorial Gardens cemetery in Bartlett, Tenn., photo by Theron Malone, July 2014
Families are still waiting for questions to be answered and cemetery access to be granted again at Galilee Memorial Gardens in Bartlett. Photo by Theron Malone (July 2014)

 

CASE BACKGROUND

  • First indictment: Galilee Memorial Gardens owner Jemar Lambert was indicted in September 2013 on a single count of theft of property $60,000 or more for burying individuals on adjoining land not owned by the cemetery. He was released on his own recognizance (ROR) on that charge, meaning no bail was required.
  • New charges: He was arrested again in January 2014 on new charges of theft of property and abuse of a corpse. Those charges stemmed from complaints alleging that, in March 2013, Lambert had charged families to bury their loved ones in individual graves in Galilee Memorial Gardens but then buried the remains of three different people in the same grave. The judge revoked his bond in February 2014 after Lambert’s arrest on the new charges.
  • Bond: Lambert was released on a $10,000 bond in August 2014 but was taken into custody again March 12 because he tested positive for the use of marijuana, violating conditions of his bail.
  • Cemetery management: The Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance (TDCI), which regulates funeral home and cemetery practices, successfully petitioned the Davidson County Chancery Court to close the cemetery in January 2014 and put it into receivership. Memphis attorney David Kustoff was appointed as deputy receiver of the cemetery, making him the local person responsible for managing the business while it is under the court’s control.

The Bartlett cemetery owner embroiled in charges of illegally using someone else’s land for burials pled guilty and was sentenced to probation in the criminal case against him, sources said Monday.

The plea covers all related criminal charges against Jemar Lambert, 39, owner of Galilee Memorial Gardens (8283 Ellis Road). He was accused of theft of adjacent property to bury an overflow of bodies as well as abuse of a corpse. Gruesome allegations in the case included caskets crushed to make room for multiple burials in the same plot, as well as unclear or missing documentation about where bodies were located.

Prosecuting attorney Byron Winsett said the judge invited Lambert to speak at the sentencing Friday and that Lambert appeared to be deferential and apologetic in his response without taking ownership of his actions. Lambert said he was just doing his best to provide a service to the community.

Winsett said, “I think he did not take responsibility in his words for his actions.”

The consequences

Lambert was sentenced to 10 years’ probation and will have to pay a probation monitoring fee, be subject to random drug testing, perform 500 hours of community service, and work in cooperation with officials regarding the conditions and events at Galilee. As part of his parole agreement, he is forbidden from working in the burial business but will be allowed to work in his family’s monument business if he chooses to do so.

Shelby County district attorney Amy Weirich said Lambert’s attorney and the prosecution are also expected to work out financial restitution to the charitable trust that owns property adjacent to the cemetery.

That land is where investigators say 100-200 bodies were buried without permission. The charge against Lambert in that case was for theft of property over $60,000 and could have sentenced him for up to 12 years if he were convicted at trial.

Other charges against Lambert for theft of more than $1,000 (a D felony, punishable by two to four years) and abuse of a corpse (an E felony, punishable by one to two years) were dismissed as part of the parole agreement.

Why probation?

The law and the facts of the case led to the probation agreement, Weirich said.

Because Lambert has no prior convictions, the first thing a judge would have to look at would be a term of probation, she explained Monday.

The probation deal avoided the cost and uncertain outcome of a trial and also removed the possibility of appeals or higher court reviews.

“He pled guilty as charged to a B felony and agreed to be on probation for 10 years,” Weirich said. “That doesn’t just mean, ‘See you in 10 years and good luck to you.’ He’s got to comply with the requirements of probation.”

His ongoing cooperation was a huge part of the decision, she said.

As a condition of receiving probation, he was ordered to assist other pending cases, to cooperate fully with the court-appointed receiver in charge of the cemetery and to help those tasked with righting this wrong from a civil end, Weirich said.

Winsett agreed, saying Lambert might not have cooperated if he had gone to trial.

“That was primary in our consideration for the community,” he said. “We’re trying to help the process of reaching an overall resolution of this process, which is not something we can do alone.”

Resolving and closing the criminal case meant families can go ahead with their civil lawsuit, said Vince Higgins, who works at the communications desk in the district attorney’s office. A class-action lawsuit remains pending with more than 550 clients filing claims against Galilee and local funeral homes.

What’s next

Kevin Walters, TDCI communications director, commented Monday on Lambert’s guilty plea.

“The Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance’s ongoing efforts to determine who maintains property rights at the cemetery are not impacted by the plea deal of Jemar Lambert,” Walters said in a written statement. “This development in no way changes TDCI’s course of action. Galilee Memorial Gardens will remain closed for the foreseeable future, and the receivership will remain in place. We offer our sympathies to the families that have been affected in this matter.”

Attorneys representing families involved in the civil suits against Lambert were not immediately available for comment Monday but released statements to other media channels that many were not happy with the probation deal.

Probation

If Lambert violates his probation, he will go back before the presiding judge in his case, criminal court judge Lee Coffee. Weirich said the judge has discretion in case of probation violations. In general, the judge could revoke probation and make Lambert serve the full 10 years (with credit for time already spent in jail), or he could dismiss the alleged violation if he’s not convinced it took place. He also could take an intermediate step (such as revoking probation, incarcerating him for a limited time and then letting him back out on probation).

At the sentencing, the judge told Lambert he would send him to prison if he violates probation by again using marijuana.


Written by Carolyn Bahm, Express editor. Contact her at (901) 433-9138 or via email to bartlett.editor@journalinc.com.