Tenn. cemetery owner accused of mishandling burials agrees to 10 years' probation in plea deal

A Tennessee cemetery owner accused of burying up to 200 bodies on land not owned by the business pleaded guilty Friday in exchange for 10 years' probation.

Jemar Lambert, the owner of Galilee Memorial Gardens in Bartlett, entered an Alford plea in Shelby County Criminal Court. Under an Alford plea, a defendant doesn't admit guilt but acknowledges there is enough evidence to convict.

Lambert, 39, pleaded guilty to theft of property over $60,000. From May 2010 to January 2012, between 100 and 200 bodies were buried on land that is owned by a charitable trust and sits adjacent to the cemetery, prosecutor Byron Winsett said.

Judge Lee Coffee accepted the plea and sentence agreed to by prosecutors. Lambert also must perform 500 hours of community service. He faces a 10-year prison sentence if he violates conditions of his probation, which include random drug testing.

Lambert's lawyer, Coleman Garrett, said his client did not intentionally break the law. However, Lambert did commit errors of omission by failing to properly supervise employees who did the burials, Garrett said.

Lambert apologized to victims whose loved ones were improperly buried.

"I hope that it brings some closure to the families involved," Coffee said.

In a separate case, Lambert was arrested in January 2014 on charges of theft of property and abuse of a corpse. Prosecutors said remains of three people were buried in a single grave at Galilee in March 2013. Charges in that case are being dismissed.

Lambert also is being sued by a class of more than 500 relatives of people buried at the cemetery. The lawsuit contends Galilee stacked multiple caskets in single burial plots, crushed caskets in order to fit more caskets into plots, misplaced remains and buried bodies on neighboring property without authorization.

The suit also names as defendants several funeral homes, saying they should have known the cemetery was conducting improper burials.

The Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance says Lambert kept burying bodies at the cemetery for two years after his registration expired on Dec. 31, 2010. Relatives of three people buried at the cemetery have said they don't know where their loved ones' remains are located because they were not allowed to see the caskets being lowered into the ground.

A receiver has been assigned to oversee and control the cemetery's operations.

"I don't know that any victim will be satisfied ... until they have some assurance of what happened with their individual loved one," Winsett said.

Coffee threw Lambert in jail on Thursday on a violation of terms of his release on $10,000 bond. Coffee revoked the bond after Lambert tested positive for marijuana.

After Friday's plea hearing, Coffee ordered Lambert released from jail. The judge told Lambert that if he decides to smoke marijuana again, it had better be a "great big blunt" because he will send Lambert to prison if he tests positive.