Former Hartford Twp. cemetery sexton maintains innocence

The Van Buren County Courthouse, located in Paw Paw, is pictured in 2012.

PAW PAW — An attorney told a Van Buren County Circuit Court jury Tuesday that his client has nothing to hide. 

“You will hear from her,” Joseph Fletcher told the courtroom about client Gerrie Heskett. 

Heskett, the former Hartford Township cemetery sexton, is being tried on one count of embezzlement between $50,000 and $100,000 and one count of embezzlement by a public official over $50. 

“I want you to hold (the prosecutor) to proving every penny,” Fletcher said. 

He and Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Jay Blair gave their opening statements Tuesday to the jury of 12 women and two men.

Judge Kathleen Brickley said the trial is expected to last through the week and could go into early next week with jury deliberations.  

Heskett, 62, had been employed by the township since 1997 and was terminated in December 2016. Heskett was in charge of maintaining Maple Hill Cemetery, and in 2000 the Township Board gave her authority over everything related to the cemetery. 

Blair said the case is based on trust. 

“The township trusted her as an employee to conduct certain tasks and that trust was abused by the defendant,” Blair said. 

He said the case deals with sales of township-owned cemetery plots to citizens, sales of plots Heskett allegedly owned, and the loss of money paid to Heskett for opening and closing graves.

“When someone would buy a grave plot or open or close a grave, that money would stop at Gerrie Heskett,” Blair said. “The money was paid to her.”

Blair said he expects to call the township clerk, treasurer and supervisor as witnesses, along with detectives who worked the case and a forensic accountant. 

He said one witness he will call started the whole case when he paid Heskett for a grave plot in October 2016, allegedly didn’t receive the plot certificate in the mail and asked Township Clerk Julie Sweet about it.  

Fletcher said that witness received a receipt for his payment and his certificate was just delayed because Heskett was responsible for mowing, trimming and the everything else dealing with the cemetery. 

“She didn’t have to give him a receipt,” Fletcher said. “That was a system she came up with to help her do her job.”

The plot the witness bought was one Heskett owned herself, so she didn’t have to give the money to the township, Fletcher said. That is something called a transfer, he said.

It is alleged there is no evidence Heskett owned those plots to begin with, but Fletcher said that’s because she got them through a transfer, which there is clear documentation. 

Blair said there were other instances of money and grave plots not matching up in which he will call witnesses to try to prove during the trial. 

Fletcher said Blair will not be able to present any evidence that Heskett did not pay for those graves. 

“They can’t prove she took the money,” Fletcher said. 

Contact: anewman@TheHP.com, 932-0357, Twitter: @HPANewman