RAVENNA TWP.: Ravenna Township trustees are asking for patience as staff sorts through scribbled index cards and shoddy paperwork in the office at Grandview Memorial Park.

“We’re not even really sure how many people are buried here,” said trustee Vince Coia. And frankly, given testimony in a Portage County courtroom this month, they’re not even sure if everyone is buried where the records say they are.

On Jan. 1, Ohio law handed the private cemetery to the township after its owners were convicted of various charges, including stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from folks who thought they were prepaying for their burials.

Coia said the township would love to find a buyer for the cemetery.

“I’d sell it for a dollar if I could,” he said.

But in the meantime, the trustees said they will do their best to be good stewards of the final resting place of so many local residents.

“We sympathize with the people this happened to and we’re going to try and fix some things,” Coia said.

The former owners

The legal case against former owners Ted and Arminda Martin began in 2011, a year in which the IRS said the couple evaded $130,000 in taxes. The pair were each sentenced to a year in federal prison, but permitted to serve their time consecutively so one could remain free to operate their three cemeteries — Grandview, another in Delaware County, and a third in Pennsylvania.

But before Ted Martin could relieve his wife in jail, criminal charges were filed as investigators discovered the pair had taken up to $1 million, from people who had prepaid for everything from vaults to gravestones to caskets, then spent the cash on gambling and personal items.

Last month in separate hearings in Portage County, the pair pleaded guilty to dozens of theft-related charges harking back to when they purchased Grandview in 2008.

Ted Martin is now serving a 10-year sentence and his wife a nine-year sentence. The case in Pennsylvania is still pending.

Portage County Judge John Enlow also ordered the pair to pay $140,000 in restitution to 40 Grandview victims, but prosecutors said there is no money to recover.

Grandview, their chief asset, rests on unbuildable land that must continue to operate as a cemetery.

Enter Ravenna Township, which was required to take ownership under Ohio Revised Code.

Occupied spaces

While the case against the Martins has been making headlines for more than a year, “we’re still getting calls almost every day,” said trustee Pat Artz.

One of those recent calls came in from Paula and Dave Briggs. The township couple spent $3,800 to purchase two spaces in an outdoor cremation wall.

But after reading about the Martin court cases, they decided to check on their investment.

Making a quick trip to the cemetery, they discovered one of the niches they had purchased had another occupant in it. The remaining niche has a marker with both of their names on a single plaque.

As a result of some Portage County testimony from families who feared strangers were buried in their family plots, the Briggs said they’d like to at least have some reassurance that no one else’s ashes are in the remaining niche with their name on it. Paula Briggs said she’s hoping once the township gets settled into the business of running the cemetery, they’ll be able to check on that.

“We’re 80 years old. When you get to be our age, everything’s stressful. You don’t like change,” she said.

And the whole point of prearranging their funerals was to make it easy on the five kids they will leave behind.

“We wanted it to be no fuss, no muss. Make me ashes and stick me in the hole,” she said. “I don’t want anyone standing over me saying, ‘Why doesn’t she look good,’ ” because the stress has taken its toll.

A little peace of mind

Trustees have set aside $50,000 from their $4.2 million annual budget to begin dealing with the cemetery. Coia is pretty sure it will take more than that to get through the year, but it’s a start, he said.

A new employee has been hired to begin typing all those index cards into a computer.

“The biggest challenge right now is trying to make sure the paper trail is accurate,” Coia said. “Everything’s paper. We need to get all of that into a software program so we have a searchable database.”

Even then, it won’t bring total peace of mind. The index cards could be wrong, he said.

“There may be people double-stacked — buried on top of each other,” Coia said. “We may never get to the bottom of it, or you may come across these things as you work along. You might go to bury a family member and find out someone else is in that grave.

“There’s no way to know everything is the way it is, so we have to assume it’s not the way it is because we’ve found mistakes,” Coia said.

Township road superintendent Ray Taylor has been named the cemetery’s sexton, handling day-to-day operations. And trustees have adopted pricing and rules for the cemetery, using Ravenna’s Maple Grove Cemetery as a guide.

There is no money to reimburse victims for prepurchased products like urns, vaults and caskets. Coia said the cemetery bank account had less than $300 in it when the township took over.

People who prepaid for openings and closings will have to pay for them again. But the township can still honor plots that have been paid for, even if it might be a different plot than the one the deed-holder had chosen.

Repairs are being made to the mausoleum. And the township is putting up a new storage building.

“The cemetery is still in business. We’re not turning people away,” Coia said. “We’re trying as best we can to create a sense of normalcy.”

Trustees also intend to look for financial help. They will plead their case before the county’s budget commission in hopes of getting a few extra dollars from local government funds, and will scour the state for potential grants.

“We won’t be able to completely make up everything we spend,” Coia said, “but we’re looking into everything we can. This isn’t something we wanted, it isn’t something we asked for, but we’re going to do our best.”

Paula Schleis can be reached at 330-996-3741 or pschleis@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/paulaschleis.