Two former owners of a Maplewood funeral home stole almost $44,000 over a 20-year period from customers who applied for burial insurance, according to charges filed in Ramsey County District Court on Friday.

David Thorsell and E. Peter Vasey, former owners of the Maple Oaks-Phalen Park Funeral Home, allegedly used funds intended for customers’ burial services to pay for funeral home expenses. Each owner is charged with two counts of insurance fraud/embezzlement and one count of theft by swindle.

In Minnesota, prepaid burial funds must be kept in a trust account or used to purchase an insurance policy. A state Department of Health investigation found that in the cases of seven customers who prepaid for insurance, Vasey and Thorsell never obtained policies, according to the complaints. Both owners’ licenses to practice mortuary science were revoked as a result of the investigation.

In 2015, the Department of Health ordered all work to be stopped in the funeral home because of unsanitary conditions. At one point, inspectors found several decomposing bodies in an embalming room. Maple Oaks’ owners said they were helping prepare the bodies for traditional Hmong funerals and that they were dehydrated, not decomposing. The funeral home was able to resume business after reaching a stipulation and settlement agreement with the Department of Health. The owners sold the business in 2017.

According to the complaints, a customer paid the funeral home more than $12,000 for insurance that would pay for her burial service once she died. But a policy was never issued. Instead, the money went into a Maple Oaks account, the complaint says, and when the customer died in 2018, the funeral home’s new owner paid more than $7,000 in costs.

Vasey claims he was not aware that no insurance policy had been issued for the customer and blamed Thorsell for any mishandled prepaid funds, according to the complaint. Thorsell said the funds in this customer’s case were never submitted to the insurance company. The funeral home was experiencing “financial difficulties,” and the money was used for operating expenses, the complaint says.

No lawyer is listed for either owner or the state.

Vasey, 69, of Columbia Heights, and Thorsell, 70, of Hopkins, are expected to make their first appearance in court on March 12.

 

Michelle Griffith (michelle.griffith@startribune.com) is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.