A Sylva, North Carolina couple may find themselves buried six feet under—in criminal charges and a substantial debt to society—after authorities unraveled a scheme that allegedly spanned nearly a decade.
Following an examination of preneed burial policies, authorities arrested Ronnie Austin Riddle, the former owner and operator of Melton Riddle Funeral Home, along with his wife, Thomasine Sheehan Riddle. The 56-year-old faces 13 counts of obtaining property by false pretense, while his wife, 55, has been charged with nine counts of the same offense.
North Carolina Department of Insurance investigators believe that between 1998 and 2009, the Riddles collected approximately $50,000 in premiums from at least 13 couples and individuals for preneed burial policies. The duo, however, never submitted the policy applications and funds to the respective insurance companies.
During that time, Ronnie Riddle ran the funeral home, employing his wife to assist him with the business and presumably some illegal activities. (In 2009, there was a change in ownership of the funeral home. Note that the charges do not relate to the current home and its director.)
Questions about the home’s business practices were raised well before the Riddles found themselves in handcuffs. The North Carolina funeral board took disciplinary action against the business in 2006; however, Ronnie Riddle was permitted to continue operations.
The violations concerned discrepancies in pre-need contracts and accounting files, all of which culminated in a March 2006 agreed that effectively revoked the business’ pre-need establishment license and funeral home permit. Sources say the revocation was stayed for 3 years on conditions that a $2,000 penalty be paid, that all pre-need licensees complete a continuing education course, and that all cited violations be remedied.
Ronnie Riddle continued to operate the funeral home in subsequent years with significant lapses in coverage of having a permit to operate and later admitted during a hearing to violating N.C. General Statutes by conducting 298 funerals in 2008 while unlicensed, and another 19 the subsequent year while both he and the funeral home were unlicensed.
The Riddles eventually turned themselves in to authorities at the Jackson County Sheriff's Office on Jan. 17.
The husband and wife were placed under $26,000 and $18,000 secured bonds, respectively.
Investigators suspect to find other victims of the alleged scheme and encourage those with information regarding the matter to contact the NCDOI’s Criminal Investigations Division at 919-807-6840.