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Last updateThu, 19 Nov 2015 8pm

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GUSMANN: She has gone where no MAN has gone before

Editor’s Note: While we don’t usually write stories for the editorial page,  this account of the trial last week of a well-known King George businessman needed to be written. There are too many situations where people violate laws to the detriment of law-abiding citizens of a community without being held accountable for their illegal behavior.  

This writer was not active in the daily affairs of our local cemetery that did business as Historyland Memorial Park before it was bought by Robert Crouch, who changed its name to Meadow-Brooke Memorial Gardens and began to defraud its customers. Now she, Louis Herrink, Susan Muse and Cindy Kimbro, own Historyland Memorial Park after a foreclosure sale removed Crouch’s ability to continue his raid on the cemetery’s assets.

While they are working diligently to restore confidence in the cemetery’s management much of the credit goes to the people in the community who have joined in the effort to return Historyland as a place where they can continue to inter members of their families with confidence.

One of the most important trials in recent history in King George took place this past week when Robert “Bobby” Crouch was convicted on multiple felony charges. While it was important that Crouch, at last, was being forced to pay for the kind of life he chose where he preyed on vulnerable local people, it was also important that King George now has a first rate Commonwealth’s Attorney who can get the job done.

Crouch has had many charges against him in the past, but none have resulted in penitentiary time. Gusmannn made that happen last week.

Crouch was charged with nine counts for failure to deposit monies into the company’s perpetual care trust fund and five counts of obtaining money under false pretenses. He was also fined $2500 for each count for a total of $35,000.

To understand the gravity of the charges, you have to understand what the trust funds are all about. They were established by law many years ago to protect the monies persons paid when they purchased lots and merchandise from private cemeteries.

The perpetual care trust fund was established to assure that the cemetery grounds are cared for in the event that something happens to the cemetery. The only monies that can come out of that fund are those to repay the cemetery operator for maintaining the property.

The merchandise trust funds are established to provide funds to purchase merchandise not delivered at the time of purchase. Money from this fund can only be withdrawn when needed, usually at bereavement.

Crouch never made a payment into the perpetual care trust fund for any of the monies he took in from sales, although each buyer paid funds to him to be put in trust.

He was successful in convincing the trust company that he had delivered the merchandise on a number of occasions so that he could remove the peoples’ money from those funds.

On one occasion he got $50,000, even though no one had ever removed such an amount in all the years the trust fund had been in the bank.

He was able to take most of the monies out of the funds before Herb Nichols, investigator for the Virginia Cemetery Board, was able to stop any withdrawals.

Gusmann’s problem was that this was a “white collar” crime; no one was shot, before the court on drug charges, or any of the usual cases that come before the court. “It’s all about money,” Gusmann told the jury in her opening remarks.

Gusmann had to show what the case was all about and get the facts before the jury so they could understand the issues before they were asked to make a decision.

On Thursday, when court convened, Circuit Judge J. Martin Bass started the proceedings by asking Crouch how he wanted to plead. Crouch, and his attorney, Michael Brickhill, of Appomattox, conferred for a moment and Crouch told the judge “Not guilty.” That may have been the first mistake of the day. Crouch had previously appeared before Judge Bass on felony charges of taking some 21 bronze markers from the cemetery and selling them to a scrap metal dealer. Bass had cleared him of those charges.  His dilemma: let the judge who heard his former case make a new judgment of him or trust himself to a King George jury. He chose the jury trial.

As Gusmann developed her case, she made the right decision on jury selection. Some 50 people showed up for jury duty, a sign that Gusmann understood how many people in the county knew about the case and Crouch’s alleged misdeeds. It took several hours for the fourteen people set to serve to be selected, but the jury finally was seated.

For the full two days of the trial, Gusmann never made a misstep. She had her witnesses lined up to give testimony that was irrefutable. Only one charge was dropped.

Each person who had purchased lots and merchandise, which Crouch had sworn had been delivered, came to court with copies of checks and contracts, going back to the 1980’s and beyond.

It was like Mark Twain’s statement after his obituary appeared in a newspaper that the report of his death had been exaggerated. All the witnesses, who Crouch claimed were dead, are alive and kicking; they have just been robbed, as though Crouch had put a gun to their heads.

Gusmann asked the same questions of each witness and then let them go. Each was asked if they had purchased their contract, had they paid for it, and had they used it.

There was no doubt, looking at the jury pool and the number of witnesses subpoenaed, that this was a trial that affected the entire community.

Brickhill did not put on any witnesses for Crouch. His defense was that the court had the wrong persons before them, that Crouch had been charged, not the corporation.

Gusmann countered that argument, saying that it was “Bobby” that swore an affidavit to the bank to get the monies, that “Bobby” had written all the checks, deposited all the monies, and it was “Bobby” who had cashed the $50,000 check, taking $9,000 in cash from the bank while making the deposit, and then writing a check to another of his corporations for $30,000.

She told the jurors how sad it was that Crouch decided to do the things to the cemetery and the lot owners when he had had such an opportunity to do good for the community.

She was also at that time able to tell the jurors about the other charges Crouch had faced in the past, including a conviction for obtaining money under false charges in Spotsylvania.

Crouch paid off the $25,000 he was required to pay in restitution for the money he had stolen at approximately the same time as he got the $50,000 from the trust funds.

It took two and a half hours for the jury to go over the charges and come back with the verdict.

Crouch, who was taken to the Rappahannock Regional Jail, will be back in court on June 20 for sentencing. At that time the public will know if the jury charges stick or what Crouch’s future will be for the next few years.

Gusmann is the first Commonwealth’s Attorney to get a conviction under the cemetery state law which is a feat all by itself as the state’s cemetery law is poorly written. She is also the first woman to get jail time for the multiple charges Crouch has had against him in the past.

The state’s investigator got the facts together for Gusmann and she did the job for the Commonwealth of Virginia and all the people who had been wronged. When she makes her formal announcement that she is standing for election come November, there will be a whole cadré of believers ready to sing her praises and get the voters out to the polls on election day.

Ruth Herrink

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