Saturday, May 25, 2002

Merkle: Cemetery couldn't compete

By Marie McCain,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Robert Merkle told a Hamilton County jury Friday that Wesleyan Cemetery in Northside lost money because it was unable to compete with other area cemeteries.

        Any funds he says he took from the cemetery coffers were used to benefit the cemetery or owed to him as salary.

        Assistant Prosecutor Andrew Berghausen, though, questioned how the cemetery benefited from the 62-year-old unordained minister's purchases of period furniture, cosmetics for his wife or a $400 fish tank.

        “That was part of my salary. I can do what I want with my own money, ” Mr. Merkle told the prosecutor.

        He added that all of his transactions were approved by Merkle family members who comprised the cemetery's board of trustees.

        This testimony conflicted with earlier testimony from his wife, Bonnie, who said she never got involved in the finances of the cemetery and that she just trusted her husband to handle the money.

        The Huber Heights, Ohio man is accused of draining Wesleyan Cemetery's endowment fund of more than $93,000. Between 1995 and 1999, the fund was gutted, leaving no money for upkeep.

        He is charged with three counts of theft and one count of failure to maintain an endowment care fund.

        The cemetery, covered in high grass, fallen tree limbs and other debris, is in disrepair.

        Mr. Merkle, during his nearly four hours on the stand Friday, said he considered the endowment fund a kind of “savings” left over from the previous administration.

        He added that he did not believe he was required to maintain the fund because he ran the cemetery as a religious organization, which is exempt from maintaining the fund. He said he also consulted with the Internal Revenue Service and believed he was exempt because of the cemetery's tax classification as not-for-profit.

        Mr. Berghausen, though, countered that Mr. Merkle did not consult the IRS until two months ago.

        Also Friday, Mr. Merkle's stepdaughter, Diana Sams, testified that she had little contact with the cemetery's financial records.


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