A Dundalk stonecutter and his wife face state charges today that they bilked grieving families out of more than $70,000 in a scheme of promising tombstones but never delivering.

John R. Wilkinson, 60, and his wife, Frances, are charged with more than 80 complaints that they violated Maryland's Consumer Protection Act while operating Dundalk Memorials near Sacred Heart of Mary Cemetery on German Hill Road, Assistant Attorney General William D. Gruhn said.

The civil complaints are the latest in a series of legal confrontations for Wilkinson, whose grandfather started hand-carving monuments in Baltimore in the late 19th century.

Among the complainants: middle-aged couples making funeral preparations and, in one case, a young couple who lost an infant to sudden infant death syndrome.

"You look at the Wilkinsons and they could be your grandparents," said Peggy Price of North Point, who lost $3,000 on a grave monument for her mother.

"I gave them my check for $3,000, and they got amnesia," she said. In 1990, John Wilkinson was fined $20,000 for operating a similar operation while working out of the George Wilkinson and Son monuments yard on Belair Road across from Holy Redeemer Cemetery.

After that action, Mr. Wilkinson opened a Dundalk office under his wife's name, said Caroline Jacoby, head of Eternal Justice Inc., which successfully lobbied state legislators for creation of a cemetery oversight agency and industry regulations protecting consumers.

Today, the Wilkinsons face a hearing in Hunt Valley before an administrative judge; some of the complainants will testify or submit affidavits. The Wilkinsons could have to pay restitution and civil penalties up to $100,000 -- and could face possible criminal action.

Prepared to pay

Richard Brooks, the couple's attorney and brother-in-law of Mr. Wilkinson, said yesterday from his home in Potomac: "This is very emotional. If it happened to a used car dealer, it would be different -- it's very emotional. The sympathy of the Wilkinsons is with the families."

Brooks said Mr. Wilkinson is prepared to surrender all of his property -- including a Harford County home and future holdings -- and earmark them to pay the complainants.

Still waiting

But Alvin Seubott, president of the Monument Dealers of Maryland, called Mr. Wilkinson a "bad apple in the bunch, an eyesore to the industry for years."

"I got tired of sob stories from the guy," said Bill Szimanski, who with his wife, Catherine, contracted Mr. Wilkinson to engrave and install a $2,000 grave marker in July 1995.

The Szimanskis of Edgemere say they're still waiting for the monument, shaped like a double heart.

Normally, delivering a marker -- once hand-engraved but now sandblasted using a rubber stencil -- takes two or three months, according to monument providers.

"Every time we'd see him he would always say he was working on it," said Catherine Szimanski. "He wasn't a fly-by-night operator; he had an office by Sacred Heart of Mary Cemetery, showed us pictures of people we knew. We trusted him."

The Rev. Richard E. Parks, pastor of Sacred Heart of Mary Church, said Wilkinson worked part time as a gravedigger but "had no authority to include us in that business."

"Some of the people who lost money to him have contacted me to help get that money back. I really feel sorry for them."

William Hughes, 73, of Joppa said he gave Wilkinson $1,800 last year for a monument over the grave of his fiancee, Phyllis Swan, in St. Paul's Lutheran Cemetery near Aberdeen.

"He always had some minor excuse for not delivering the stone and two vases," Hughes said. "I hired him by looking in the phone book. I sure had a hard time."

Donna Jones, an official of the Monument Dealers of North American in Illinois, said: "Unfortunately, events like this are occurring all over the country. In some cases, it's unscrupulous behavior; others are small companies that don't have a background in doing monuments.

"In either case, the customers don't know what things cost, they are usually grieving and very vulnerable."

1990 judgment

According to the attorney general's office, Mr. Wilkinson is continuing to attempt to pay the 1990 judgment, in which he was charged with breach of a business agreement. There was a judgment of $20,000 and the state garnished assets of more than $4,000. Interest on the judgment accrues at an annual rate of 10 percent.

Mr. Wilkinson also owes nearly $10,000 to quarries in Georgia, West Virginia and Vermont, the state said.

'I take full blame'

In a letter Mr. Wilkinson sent last month to many of the complainants in the state action, the stonecutter said "due to my poor management, for which I take full blame, the memorial for which you paid a deposit will most likely not be placed on the gravesite of your loved ones."

"In addition, due to a financial crisis that includes a lack of funds, federal tax liens, civil judgments and other legal actions I find that I cannot catch up on the orders."

He added in the letter, "I do not expect forgiveness now because I have done a disservice to each of you. But I trust that in time that you accept my deepest apologize [sic] for the hurt and pain I have caused each of you."

Says Bill Szimanski: "Baloney."

Pub Date: 4/29/97

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