West enters guilty plea, sentenced

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 30, 2010

NATCHEZ — Theodore “Bubber” West wanted a chance to right his wrongs to the Natchez community, and in Adams County Circuit Court Thursday, Judge Forrest “Al” Johnson gave him that chance.

West, 60, pleaded guilty to three counts of conversion of pre-need funeral funds, a felony crime. Conversion charges mean West, as operator of West Funeral Home, was not in compliance with the Mississippi Secretary of State’s Office requirement to place a percentage of the funds received from customers for future funerals into a trust account of a financial institution.

Johnson sentenced West to 10 years for each count to run concurrently. He will serve one year house arrest, five years formal probation and four years informal probation.

“You are 60 years old and have health problems,” Johnson said to West. “I don’t see any purpose in making you serve time behind bars.

“I don’t see how that serves justice or society. It would be better to give you a chance to make this right, and I believe you will make efforts to do that.”

West has 30 days to pay restitution in the amount of $12,200 to the victims of the three counts, Diane Butler, Helen Owens and Jesse Winston, or West could be charged with contempt of court.

“This has to be done,” Johnson said to West. “You do whatever it takes to raise this money.

“This is serious. Butler and the other victims are entitled to the peace of mind in knowing their funeral arrangements will be taken care when they do pass on.”

Butler, who paid West $6,000 for a pre-need funeral policy and did not know she had been wronged until she read about it in the newspaper, said she was satisfied with the outcome.

“I’m just glad to be getting my money back, so I can make arrangements elsewhere,” Butler said. “I don’t have anything against the West family. Our families have been friends for years.”

Special Assistant Attorney General Marvin Sanders prosecuted the case, and called to the stand Dave Scott, who is the assistant secretary of state in charge of regulation including the pre-need funeral policy.

Scott said West did not have a license with the secretary of state to sell pre-need funeral policies, and that the secretary of state’s office sent the funeral home two cease and desist letters.

From Jan. 1, 2002 to 2008, Scott said West Funeral Home had sold approximately 80 policies without a license to do so. Scott said Jan. 1, 2002, was when the secretary of state started regulating pre-need funeral policies.

From the secretary of state’s perspective, West owes $91,107 during this period.

West, however, said he only owes $19,000 in outstanding pre-need claims.

West said it all started in 2001 when he had a heart attack, and he continued to struggle with poor health and a sinking economy.

“The economy in Natchez is so down, that is difficult for people to just keep the lights on and other overhead services,” West said.

When it came time to establish the trust funds for these cases, West said the money just wasn’t there.

“This money intermingled with the business money until the end of the month when I had to establish the fund,” West said.

West said he was sorry to the people of Natchez.

“I’m sorry for the embarrassment this has caused to the community,” West said. “I am sorry to Mrs. Butler, her sister and her father. I have no ill feelings toward them.

“I just want a chance to make things right.”

West, a former city alderman, maintains that he could still be a capable businessman.

“You can’t name one person who came to me to be serviced who didn’t receive a funeral,” West said. “I’ve tried to be a good citizen, and I’ve served this community to the best of my ability.”

Hal Dockins, West’s attorney, said West was appreciative of the outcome.

“We appreciate Judge Johnson giving him the opportunity to fix everything,” Dockins said.

While the current case against West didn’t include the remaining secretary of state allegations, Johnson urged West to make right on those claims as well.

“I strongly urge you to do what you can to make all of that right too,” Johnson said. “You potentially have a lot of criminal cases out there.”

West will also have to pay all court costs.