Thursday, November 29th, 2007
Business woman pleads not guilty to theft by deception
By Margie Wuebker
A Celina businesswoman pleaded not guilty Wednesday afternoon to 24 counts of theft by deception alleging she accepted nearly $52,000 from customers but never delivered the cemetery monuments or grave markers they ordered.
Mary Jo Pearson, 66, 5218 state Route 29, appeared during an arraignment that had been rescheduled twice due to her reported health problems.
The white-haired defendant arrived alone and took a seat outside Mercer County Common Pleas Court without acknowledging any of the alleged victims, many of whom had come to the courthouse for each scheduled proceeding.
She later looked straight ahead or at the floor while entering and leaving the courtroom with her attorney, Joseph Benavidez of Lima.
Judge Jeffrey Ingraham asked Pearson whether she was up to continuing with the arraignment. She nodded affirmatively before quietly answering "Yes." Ingraham set 8:30 a.m. Jan. 4 for the pretrial hearing and continued her recognizance bond.
Near the end of the proceeding, Benavidez stood up and turned toward spectators in the gallery.
"I would like to apologize," he said in regard to the repeated postponements. "This had nothing to do with strategizing. I have provided the court with documentation regarding my client's health problems."
On Oct. 17, the attorney told court officials his client was hospitalized after suffering an apparent stroke. His Oct. 24 update indicated she had been moved to a nursing home outside Mercer County.
Pearson, owner and operator of Pearson Memorials, has been the subject of an ongoing investigation that began nearly a year ago after the Mercer County Sheriff's Office received complaints from customers who had purchased monuments or markers for loved ones only to find the graves bare after more than a year.
The grand jury indictment lists 24 alleged victims identified as either Jane or John Doe. Fifteen of them are women and nine are men with six listed as elderly making those charges fourth-degree felonies. All but one of the remaining charges are fifth-degree felonies. The other, which involved a sum of $266.25, is a misdemeanor.
The offenses date back to Jan. 27, 2004, with three allegedly taking place this year. One of the counts alleges she deprived an elderly man of $9,735 by knowingly obtaining or exerting control by means of deception. This is the largest amount listed in the indictment.
Authorities executed a search warrant this summer at Pearson's business/home address, seizing boxes of paperwork as well as three computers. They spent nearly eight hours sorting through stacks of papers searching for such things as contracts, written communications with suppliers and purchasers, income tax and sales tax returns and bank account records.
Deputies found a suspicious wrapped package at the scene, which drew the attention of a K-9 unit. The package, wrapped in multiple layers of clear plastic, contained a dark substance initially thought to be some type of drugs. However, chemical analysis of the contents identified it as hydraulic cement, a substance reportedly used in setting monuments.
If convicted, the business proprietor faces up to 18 months in prison and $5,000 in fines for the fourth-degree felony charges and 12 months in prison and $2,500 in fines for the fifth-degree felony. The lone misdemeanor carries the possibility of an additional six months behind bars and a $1,000 fine.