Cemetery caretakers accused of theft

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — The caretakers of the Belmont Memorial Park cemetery were arraigned Thursday before Common Pleas judges John Vavra and Frank Fregiato on the allegation that they stole nearly $300,000 from the cemetery.

Keith Dwayne Baratie Sr., of Oak Street, Glencoe, pleaded innocent to one count of forgery, one county of aggravated theft and one count of securing writing by deception. The charges are third-degree felonies. His wife and co-defendant, Karen Sue Ellen Neff, 47, of the same address, pleaded innocent to the same charges.

Baratie’s pre-trial was set for Sept. 17, with plea agreement Oct. 1 and trial Oct. 30. Neff’s pre-trial was set for Sept. 24, with plea agreement Oct. 22 and trial Nov. 6.

The bond for both was set at $10,000. A no-contact order was issued by both judges.

Securing writing by deception means that someone is accused of tricking someone else into writing anything that disposes of or puts a restriction on property, or forces them into a financial obligation.

“This deals with them accepting a check for oil and gas money to the tune of $282,000 that was earmarked for the cemetery,” said Belmont County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Kevin Flanagan. “They converted it to their own use. They were both part of running the cemetery.”

Regarding the no-contact order, Flanagan speculated that it might be challenged at a future time.

“We did not know at the time that Baratie and Neff claimed to be married,” he said.

He also commented on the possibility of recovering the money if the either of the defendants plead guilty or are convicted.

“That would either be done through a restitution order from the criminal court, or through a civil suit,” said Flanagan who also said there have been no orders or procedures of that nature.

Early this year, the Belmont County Sheriff’s Office began conducting an investigation into possible theft of a large sum of money from the Belmont Memorial Park cemetery account.

The cemetery is at 52950 High Ridge Road, St. Clairsville, near the intersection of Interstate 70. According to a former member of the cemetery board who asked not to be named, the 44-acre cemetery opened in 1937 with the main office located in Bellaire. The cemetery went into receivership in the 1950s and was run by a board of directors, which has since dissolved.

According to records from the prosecutor’s office, the cemetery board dissolved in 2013.