Former funeral director at the now-closed Gaskins-Jones Funeral Home in Harrisburg, John B. Jones, 52, was sentenced to three years in the Illinois Department of Corrections Thursday morning by Massac County Circuit Judge Joseph Jackson, who was appointed to oversee the trial that began in 2009 after it was discovered Jones was misusing funds meant to be placed in trust funds for clients who purchased pre-need funeral contracts.
Jones pled guilty to five counts of failure to deposit funds into a trust account, which was legally required of him as a fiduciary duty, in addition to six counts of theft, which were also related to the mishandling of funds entrusted to him for pre-need funeral contracts.
During Thursday morning's sentencing hearing held in the Saline County Courthouse, defense attorney John Bradley called Jones to the stand to testify on his own behalf. Though Jones said he is sorry for his actions, he also implied someone else was to blame for the misuse of funds that occurred over a two-year period.
"I got some bad advice from a partner," Jones said, apparently referring to the principal shareholder in the business, Greg Meredith, who Special Prosecutor Charles Zalar referred to as a "silent partner," arguing that Jones was in charge of handling the day-to-day operations at the funeral home and also held the title of president of the company.
Kathleen Gill, the sister of a woman who set up pre-need funeral contracts for her and her husband with Jones and lost around $15,000 through his misuse of the funds, was present at the hearing to support her aging sister who was unable to attend.
"It was his responsibility," she said, referring to the defendant. "I didn't give it to Meredith, I gave it to him."
Bradley argued that Jones has been seeking employment ever since he was charged with the crimes in order to begin paying back those who were victimized, but he has been unsuccessful, in part because he lost his driver's license due to the approximately $50,000 he owes in child support. With no source of income, Jones has been living at his mother's house in Equality and has supported himself through a few odd jobs and financial assistance from family and friends. Jones said he has been taking college courses online and is only two classes away from completing a bachelor's degree in business management, which he hoped would help him find a job and eventually repay his victims.
"I am very sorry," Jones said. "It has led to many sleepless nights."
Bradley argued against incarcerating his client because the time he spends in prison will only delay restitution payments and make it more difficult for Jones to find work.
"Giving him the opportunity to pay restitution would better serve the community, Jones and the victims than incarcerating him," Bradley said.
Zalar, on the other hand, argued that Jones will never be able to pay back the amount of money to those he victimized because they are "virtually all in their 80s."
"All of these people were victimized emotionally," Zalar said. "A number of them have dwelled on this since it came to light."
He added that the unlawful acts were only discovered when a person who had purchased a pre-need funeral contract from Jones died and the victims' loved ones came to him grieving, only to discover there was no money to pay for the funeral.
"He knew he hadn't funded these things and one day there would be a reckoning," Zalar said.
Though Jones had no prior criminal record, Zalar argued the eight people who were victimized by Jones from early 2006 through the spring of 2008 demonstrated that Jones engaged in a pattern of criminal behavior that involved utilizing his position in the community to intentionally take advantage of the elderly through a false sense of trust.
"It was not a one-time thing," Zalar said. "In essence, this was a Ponzi scheme."
The prosecutor also argued a prison sentence is necessary in order to deter others from committing similar crimes and that Jones would be unlikely to ever pay restitution to the victims before their deaths, even if he was able to get a good-paying job.
"Probation would seriously deprecate the seriousness of these crimes," Zalar said, adding that he doesn't believe Jones has "truly accepted responsibility for his actions," referencing the defendant's earlier claims that he was misled by his business partner.
Zalar closed by asking the judge to sentence Jones to three and a half years in the Illinois Department of Corrections and pay court costs, in addition to restitution to the victims in excess of $48,000.
Bradley countered by arguing that justice would not be best served by a prison term, as it would only delay the defendant's wish to pay restitution, and he implied Meredith was aware of what was going on at the funeral home.
"What does incarceration do? Absolutely nothing," Bradley said. "To me, that just doesn't seem logical."
Jackson then gave Jones a chance to speak before taking a recess to make his final decision on the defendant's sentence.
"I feel like I've lost four years of my life and a very good career by trusting someone and taking bad advice," Jones said, adding that he wants an opportunity to right the wrongs he committed.
After a brief recess, Jackson announced his decision to sentence Jones to three years of incarceration and one year of mandatory supervised release. He also ordered Jones to pay restitution to the victims in the amount of $48,677.73, in addition to court costs. Jones will have to serve at least 50 percent of that term.
After Jones was remanded into the custody of the Saline County Sheriff's Department to later be transferred to prison, Zalar said he was pleased with the outcome.
"These offenses caused significant harm to these victims and their families, in addition to having to pay for their funerals twice," he said.