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‘Rotten to the bones:’ State let Gray cemetery owner operate despite known issues

We found documents dating back almost 20 years that raised concerns about former Coroner Jerry Bridges' funeral home and cemetery

GRAY, Georgia — It's been more than three months since the arrest and resignation of Jones County Coroner Jerry Bridges. 

Arrest warrants accuse him of selling prepaid funerals and services, and then improperly spending the money. 

Now, there are complaints that this whole situation should have been dealt with more than a decade ago. 

It's important to note that while Jerry Bridges has been arrested, he's currently out on a $100,000 bond. The case hasn't gone to the grand jury yet. 

Investigators say that's because they're still hearing from new possible victims. 

When our 13 Investigates team started digging deeper, we found out that the State Cemetery Board, Funeral Board, Secretary of State, and Attorney General all knew of potential problems with Bridges Funeral home, but allowed him to keep operating for nearly two decades.

"I got robbed. Simple as that." 

That was Don Bailey's reaction after meeting with a Jones County Sheriff's detective about a burial policy he thought he bought for himself from Bridges Funeral home four years ago. 

He says, "I went up, picked out the casket, did the arrangements, wrote them a check. Handed them the check. They handed me my copy of the paperwork and that's as far as they got. The check got to the bank. The paperwork got to the trash."

Bailey has the copy of the check and his contract, but when he called the company to confirm the policy, he says he got a surprise.

"He says, 'You're not in our system. Nothing has ever been filed for an application for a policy.'"

This surprised Bailey because -- right before he bought his policy -- he bought one for his wife, Sherron. When she died a year later, everything was fine.

And Bridges had handled their daughter's funeral 25 years earlier after a car crash. 

"They did a great job. I was really pleased with the services I got," Bailey said. "Then they turn right around and steal from me. It's frustrating. You just don't know who to trust anymore." 

RELATED: 'It's pretty atrocious:' Jones County coroner resigns after arrest on 24 fraud-related charges

Even more frustrating for investigators and people who believe they're victims, records show the State of Georgia knew of potential problems with Bridges funeral home years before Bailey ever bought his policy. 

The records show the business license for Cedar Ridge Cemetery, which former coroner Jerry Bridges owns, lapsed in 2005.

Credit: 13 WMAZ

Minutes from the state cemetery board show discussions as far back as 2008 about Bridge's failure to file required financial paperwork for Cedar Ridge Cemetery. 

A civil order filed by then-Secretary of State Cathy Cox against Bridges in 2006 showed the filing failures actually dated back to the year 2000. It ordered Bridges to stop selling burial plots and pre-need burial policies, and to pay a $25,000 fine. 

An identical order filed by Secretary of State Karen Handel a year later outlined the same problems and called for the same penalties. 13WMAZ couldn't locate any records showing Bridges complied. 

A judge finally filed a contempt motion in November 2009, but other than a couple of mentions in the Cemetery Board minutes in 2011 and 2016, the case just went away.

Credit: 13 WMAZ
Even after the state took him to court, Bridges continued to operate.

Jones County Sheriff Butch Reece says he believes that lack of action created many more potential victims in Jones County. 

"The last court hearing was in 2009 where they were to pay a $500 fine per day if they did not do the things required by the law, which they didn't, and the ball was dropped then. Unfortunately from that point on, a lot of people paid their pre-needs and that money is gone," Reece said.

Things finally changed when Scott Walston bought Bridges Funeral Home in May 2018 and started going through the finances.

"It all began when families wanted to move their pre-need contracts from Bridges Funeral Home to Gray Memorial Chapel. Then when we requested the funds, they weren't coming in a timely manner," Walston explained.

At first, Walston turned to the state for help, but says so far he's mostly met with frustration, adding, "I think the frustration is just getting the state to move on any level whether it's the funeral services board, cemetery board, or the Secretary of State."

It was Sheriff Butch Reece who issued arrest warrants for Bridges. He says the case should never have made it this far. 

"This is not working. This system, there's no checks and balances. It's rotten to the bones," said Reece.

According to Sheriff Reece, dozens of families around Jones County are possibly out of thousands of dollars. 

"It's sad that these people...a lot of them that was their life savings and it's gone," he said.

That includes people like Don Bailey. 

"I've got this bought. It's there when I need it, but it wasn't," Bailey said. "I'm out $14,000 and I'm starting all over again."

He's left with paperwork, his sense of humor, and hopes that he can come up with a better plan than the one he shared with his daughter.

"I told her, 'Well all I can do now is leave the posthole diggers on the front porch.'" He adds with a laugh, "There's plenty of room in the back. Go dig a hole."

A lot of the criticism for the breakdown is directed at the Cemetery and Funeral Service Boards.

They fall under the Secretary of State, but are largely independent and are mostly made up of funeral home owners. 

There's a drive to change that system in the next legislative session after seeing the years of failure to act in this case. 

RELATED: 'My day will be in court:' Jones County coroner addresses theft charges

When we spoke to Bridges several months ago, he said he'd spent the money caring for the cemetery, and that he intended to honor any burial contracts he'd sold. 

By law, the prepaid funeral accounts should only be spent for the burial services, and the perpetual care account should always have a balance to pay for future care.

We've got a new development in the case too.

The Secretary of State has asked the Attorney General's Office to see if a judge will allow someone else to take over Cedar Ridge Cemetery, which is still owned by Bridges. The Secretary of State's office is gathering more evidence for that effort.


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