Funeral director sentenced in Ontonagon

ONTONAGON – A former Ontonagon County funeral director who embezzled more than $40,000 from clients was sentenced to 18 months to five years in prison in Ontonagon County Circuit Court Wednesday.

Thomas Wandersee had pleaded guilty to three five-year felony counts of embezzlement – $1,000 or more but less than $20,000. Wandersee embezzled from at least 14 people through pre-paid funeral contracts.

Wandersee also received credit for 43 days served.

Wandersee’s attorney, Karl Numinen, presented a restitution check of $38,320.10 at the sentencing hearing. The check didn’t cover three more incidents that were added Wednesday, including one of almost $7,000.

Judge Janis Burgess said Wandersee still didn’t seem to grasp the impact of his actions, which she said had violated a position of “extreme trust.”

“They were doing the only thing that they could to assist their loved ones at a time when they weren’t going to be there to assist them any further,” she said. “So you became the holder of that trust for all of these people. It is a higher level of trust than many, many professionals in our community have. And you violated that trust many times – not just once.”

Two family members spoke on the victims’ behalf at the hearing. Sig Hokens made a pre-planned funeral arrangements for his mother. About six months later, Wandersee forged his signature, sent it to a holding bank and got $6,000.

While Wandersee’s form indicated his mother had died May 10, she’s still very much alive, Hokens said.

Hokens is angry his family was involved, but can handle it, he said. What really bothers him are the reports of similar activities by Wandersee dating back to 1999, after which “he got his hand slapped a little bit.”

“I would hope that you would send him to state prison, hopefully for five years, and put him on probation for at least that many years,” he said. “Because he’s just going to go to another state and do the same thing, in my belief.”

Sandra Maki read a letter on behalf of her 89-year-old mother, who lost close to $7,000.

“I never thought anyone acting as a friend could be so cruel,” her mother wrote. “I gave this money to Tom Wandersee so my family wouldn’t be burdened with my funeral expenses. Tom Wandersee has stolen not only from me, but my family and their inheritance.”

Maki, too, had thought Wandersee was a friend.

“He lied to me many times,” she said. “I went to his home, and he told me everything would be straightened out, and that was nothing but a pack of lies.”

In trying to accept his situation and move on, Wandersee said, he had falsely given the impression he was minimizing his crimes.

The restitution was the first part of making it up, he said.

“Realistically, to regain the trust of some of these people will never happen. I understand that,” he said. “In Mr. Hokens’ case, I’m quite surprised that his response didn’t include a tree with a length of rope, to be honest about it … The fact that they’re angry and upset is understandable. I realize that this was wrong.”

Wandersee said over the past year, he’s come to realize how many people he’s hurt through his actions.

“All I can do is try to take this situation, learn from it, and once again at least be somewhat of a productive member of society, rather than just sitting in jail, taking up space,” he said.

In making her decision, Burgess considered both letters from numerous community members supporting Wandersee, and a “scathing” letter from the Michigan Funeral Directors Association about how Wandersee has tarnished the profession.

Each time was “a calculated act,” Burgess said. And in Hokens’ case, as with the others, it included being told a family member had passed away.

“He knows it’s not true, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t still devastating to him,” she said. “And that had to happen every single time. It wasn’t just that you forged somebody’s signature. You also had to assign somebody a death.

“Boy. This is just really, really, calculated bad behavior,” Burgess continued, shutting Wandersee down when he tried to interrupt. “I am not happy that my hands are tied by 23 months.”

Burgess gave Wandersee an 18-month minimum. That, she said, would provide some leeway for additional punishment if things don’t work well.

“I’m not sure you get it yet,” she said. “… You’ve expressed contrition to the right people, but it what’s what we do when we’re not so sure everybody’s looking that really tells the true story. And I don’t get an overall sense, even from your comments here today, that you are truly contrite.”