GRAY, Ga. - Peace of mind. That’s the selling point for funeral homes who encourage customers to pay in advance for the day their loved ones finally say goodbye. It’s called pre-need. But a scandal in one Georgia county over pre-need funeral money raises questions about how much the state is really protecting consumers.
“Come on!" shouted Don Bailey with a half-grin. "You can’t write stories like this!"
Ask the Jones County widower what he thinks, and you’ll get back an answer mixed with amusement and heartache. The kind you might expect from a retired Marine sharing space with two Australian shepherds and his late wife’s collection of everything turtle.
“Why cry?" he asked. "Ain’t nothing I can do. Who am I going to fight? The state of Georgia?”
The crying actually started long ago, in 1991 when a car accident killed 12-year-old daughter Rebecca and left wife Sherron an invalid for the next 25 years. In 2015, a year before Sherron died, Don pre-paid for both their funerals at Bridges Funeral Home in Jones County.
Sharon was buried with no issues. Don’s will be a different story.
“It is a shock when a police officer looks at you and says you’re a victim," Bailey said. "That… like someone throws cold water on you. Holy smoke. I’m a victim.”
Jerry Bridges owned a funeral home and cemetery in Jones County. He faces 44 counts of theft.
Early last year, the Jones County sheriff’s office launched an investigation into whether Bridges Funeral Home stole pre-need money.
Owner Jerry Bridges would eventually be indicted on 44 counts of theft by conversion. Investigators estimate he pocketed around $250,000. A trial date has not been set.
“Mr. Bridges also took some pretty nice vacations quite frequently we understand," pointed out Major Earl Humphries.
Of those 44 victims, the one out the most money: Don Bailey. He lost $13,861.
“You know, if you can’t trust your undertaker, who can you trust?” asked Bailey with a smile.
Who can you trust? And how many years should the state of Georgia let a funeral home owner get away with ignoring the rules? One year? Five years? Ten years?
In this case, the truth is a tragedy all its own.
Jones County Sheriff's Office investigators Lt. Kenny Gleaton (L) and Major Earl Humphries discovered multiple times where a state licensing board could have shut down Bridges but chose not to.
Bridges no longer owns the funeral home, but he still runs Cedar Ridge cemetery where Bailey and others prepaid for their graves and the perpetual upkeep. We found Bridges at home and asked about the missing money.
"They'll get their money back," he insisted. He wouldn't answer any other questions.
That's a lot of money missing, a lot of people harmed, for something that was supposed to be guaranteed. To bring peace of mind. If only there were some warning signs that government could have done something about it. Well, as it turns out, that's the other frustrating part of this saga.
Beginning in 2005, Bridges stopped sending his financial records as required by law to the Georgia Board of Cemeterians, the group that's supposed make sure the public's money is protected.
Minutes show board members giving Bridges multiple chances to provide those mandatory records, nearly fifteen years worth of chances. They did take him to court where a judge held him in contempt. But Bridges kept selling pre-need. Even after he was arrested, the board never moved to have someone else take control of the cemetery. Bridges still owns it today.
Remember, Don Bailey bought his pre-need policy in 2015. That was ten years after the licensing board first noticed Bridges was ignoring the law.
"The state of Georgia let these people down," argued Major Humphries from the Jones County Sheriff's Office. "There's no doubt about that."
People like Darlene Holoway. Her father Virgil Holcomb, Sr. lost $9,600. A Korean War Veteran, he wanted to save his children the stress of making his eventual funeral arrangements.
"The Cemetery Board shouldn't have been monitoring their own people," complained Darlene. "I blame them as well."
Don Bailey paid Bridges thousands of dollars to pre-pay for his funeral unaware the Jones County cemetery owner had been ignoring state financial reporting rules for years. Authorities say his money was stolen.
No answers makes it even worse.
"Yes, I'd like to have my money back but why'd you do this?" asked Don Bailey. "Come on! Give me a reason!"
No one from the board ever alerted the Jones County sheriff's office or district attorney about Bridges.
But Cemeterian Board chairman Richard Parker refused to share any blame, instead pointing the finger at the Attorney General's office who advises the board on what it can do.
"I blame all that on the AG's office," said Parker, who owns a funeral home and cemetery in Brunswick. "And I hate to throw them under the bus. But they're in charge of that Bridges mess."
But as far back as 2008, the attorney general representative offered the board the option of putting Bridges in receivership, effectively removing him from the business. The board chose not to. Chairman Parker could not explain why.
"They should have done something," insisted Bailey. "You know, give us a heads-up! Don't sell no more of these policies. Don, don't buy that! And I would have listened."