gavel.jpgA man accused of swindling customers at a funeral home in San Francisco’s Bayview District pleaded not guilty to charges in the case just hours after his alleged co-conspirator surrendered to authorities.

Derek Washington, 38, and Donald Rollins, 56, allegedly accepted advance payments for funeral services by their company, Funerals by Washington, and then used the money inappropriately, District Attorney George Gascon said Tuesday.

Washington, an Oakland resident, was arraigned in San Francisco Superior Court this afternoon and pleaded not guilty to charges in the case.

During today’s arraignment, Assistant District Attorney Max Peltz notified the judge that Rollins, who had been at large, surrendered to police shortly after noon.

Rollins is set to be arraigned on Thursday on the same charges as Washington. Both men face seven counts of grand theft and 16 counts of violating the laws regulating “pre-need” funeral service agreements.

In such agreements, customers pay in advance for a funeral for themselves, an elderly family member, or a child. The law requires that “pre-need” payments be put into trust accounts and not be used for a funeral home’s operating expenses, according to the district attorney’s office.

At least seven victims in the case entered into contracts with Funerals by Washington between March 2004 and January 2009, when the funeral home was shut down.
The company never repaid or rendered services to any of the seven victims who are included in the case, according to Assistant District Attorney Evan Ackiron, who will be prosecuting the case.

One of the victims died in 2008, and the family was told by the company that the paperwork had been lost and that they had to hold the funeral elsewhere, Ackiron said.

That family filed the initial complaint against Funerals by Washington, prompting an audit by the state’s Cemetery and Funeral Bureau.

Authorities found that at least seven victims – six of whom are still alive – lost a total of about $30,000 to the funeral home, according to the district attorney’s office.

Bank records show the men spent some of the money on the business while spending some on other items, Ackiron said.

Gascon, who announced the allegations at a news conference on Tuesday, said, “This is a very despicable crime,” that involved “taking advantage of some of our most vulnerable” community members.

Washington surrendered to police last week, posted $60,000 bail, and is out of custody.
Both he and Rollins face a maximum sentence of 17 years and 8 months in prison if convicted of the charges, all of which are felonies.

Washington’s attorney, Adante Pointer, said outside the courtroom today that his client “looks forward to setting the record straight” on the allegations against him.

His next hearing is scheduled for March 3.

Dan McMenamin, Bay City News

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