Kenneth Neeld Jr. spent most of his life serving others, his loved ones and friends told a Bucks County judge on Friday. He dedicated his time and decades in a Malvern funeral home business to giving to the less fortunate, they said.
They said it was a mistake when he stole a quarter of a million dollars from Keith Jerome, a dying old man who had no family and had trusted Neeld to bequeath his estate to three charities that helped poor children overseas and the elderly. His attorney called it “aberrant behavior.”
Even Neeld — despite pleading guilty to theft, insurance fraud, forgery, and other offenses in July — blamed his crime on “one fundamental mistake” he said he made when handling Jerome’s finances.
“I tried to fix it in ways that were stupid,” Neeld told Bucks County President Judge Wallace Bateman. “I’m guilty because I didn’t do it the right way, but I’m willing to work to do it the correct way.”
He even came to court Friday with $100,000, aiming to jump-start the restitution process.
But Bateman was not swayed. He denounced Neeld’s actions as a “continuous, criminal act” that went on for more than four years.
“You took advantage of an elderly man who was not well, and you deprived three charities of what they needed,” the judge said. “You can’t just walk into court with a check and say, ‘Sorry.’ ”
Bateman sentenced Neeld, 48, a King of Prussia resident, to two-and-a-half to five years in state prison. It was a term significantly higher than the probation and restitution that Neeld’s attorney, Eugene Tinari, had sought, but half the length that prosecutors sought.
The decision came after a two-hour, emotional hearing in Doylestown, during which Neeld’s character witnesses openly argued with prosecutors, disputing some of the facts of the case despite his earlier guilty plea.
Jerome, 84, was unmarried and had no living relatives when he died in 2016 at a nursing home in Doylestown. He had contracted with Neeld through Neeld Family Funeral Care. 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.
It wasn’t until three years after Jerome’s death that questions surfaced. An insurance agency through which he had purchased a life insurance policy contacted the State Attorney General’s Office, raising concerns that Neeld had illegally withdrawn money from Jerome’s account, according to court records.
Investigators found that Neeld had done just that, sometimes writing checks to himself or his business, or hiding the transactions behind fabricated expenses related to Jerome’s estate, the affidavit said. And instead of passing the money to the three nonprofits, Neeld spent it on a vacation home rental and his daughter’s orthodontist bills, among other purchases.
“He took advantage of someone who was all alone in the world and promised to take care of his end-of-life wishes while stabbing him in the back and stealing from him,” Senior Deputy Attorney General M. Eric Schoenberg said during Friday’s hearing.
Representatives from the senior center and the Zawadi Fund testified Friday that the donations earmarked by Jerome would’ve doubled their annual budgets. Janelle Larson, director of the Zawadi Fund, said the diversion of the money by Neeld “took food from the mouths of children.”
During their testimony Friday, Neeld’s family and friends took turns detailing the charitable work he had done in his life, including taking trips to Honduras to assist Amigos De Jesus in its work. His wife, Judi, testified that he certainly was not the villain that prosecutors from the State Attorney General’s Office made him out to be.
“I know what this looks like on paper,” she told Bateman, “but it’s not the reality of what Keith Jerome went through.”
“The most troubling thing is that you knew they were charities, you knew what the money was for, and you knew the effect that stealing from them would have,” he said to Neeld.
Minutes later, a tearful Neeld hugged his daughter and wife. Then sheriff’s deputies handcuffed him and led him away.