As he fought a losing battle with cancer, Keith Jerome made a Chester County funeral director his power of attorney, and directed him to donate his estate to three charities.
Instead, prosecutors in the state Attorney General’s Office said Thursday, the director, Kenneth Neeld Jr., pocketed the money, spending it on personal expenses including vacation rentals, parking tickets, and his daughter’s orthodontist bills. And since Jerome’s death in September 2016, only two of his designated nonprofits received donations in his name, in amounts that were mere fractions of the nearly $258,000 prosecutors say they were set to receive.
Neeld, 47, of King of Prussia, was arrested Thursday and charged with theft, forgery, insurance fraud, and related offenses. He was released on $50,000 unsecured bail.
Neeld’s attorney, Eugene Tinari, described him as “a hardworking family man that strives to serve his clients in the funeral business,” and was surprised by the criminal charges.
“We’re reviewing the charging documents and our investigation is ongoing,” Tinari said. “We have to sift through the paperwork and see if there were some legitimate accounting errors that need to be rectified.”
Jerome, 84, was unmarried, and had no children or living relatives when he died at a nursing home in Doylestown, the affidavit of probable cause for Neeld’s arrest said. In the months leading up to his death, Jerome contracted with Neeld through Neeld Family Funeral Care, the company he operated in Malvern.
Under the agreement that made Neeld his power of attorney, Jerome named three nonprofits as the only beneficiaries in his will: the Coatesville Senior Center; Amigos De Jesus, a charity that supports children in Honduras; and Zawadi Fund International, which works with children in Kenya.
Three years later, an insurance agency through which Jerome had purchased a life insurance policy contacted the state Attorney General’s Office, the affidavit said. Workers there were concerned that Neeld might have illegally withdrawn funds from Jerome’s annuity, and a criminal investigation was launched.
During that probe, investigators found that Neeld had repeatedly withdrawn money from accounts opened in Jerome’s name, sometimes writing checks to himself or his business, or hiding the transactions behind fabricated expenses related to Jerome’s estate, the affidavit said.
In one instance, prosecutors allege, Neeld provided an itemized bill for the purchase of a headstone and other funeral expenses for Jerome — totaling more than $14,000 — when Jerome’s body had been cremated for around $600, according to the affidavit.
The intended recipients of the estate funds, meanwhile, said they either didn’t receive money or received paltry donations: Zawadi Fund International, for instance, was given only $1,000 in Jerome’s name, the affidavit said.
Attorney General Josh Shapiro said his office has kept a close watch for cases like these throughout the state.
“Part of having a dignified end-of-life is the peace of mind knowing that your final wishes will be carried out — and it is despicable when that trust is violated for profit,” Shapiro said in a statement Thursday.