PETERSBURG, VA (WWBT) - A shocking development today in Petersburg Criminal Court - the former tombstone dealer, who took money for grave monuments he never delivered, left the courthouse a free man. 12 On Your Side began its investigation of Ron Hess roughly a year ago.
This was a trial by judge. The outcome may have been different with a jury. The judge said there was no proof Ron Hess intended to defraud anyone. The families who lost money and had to pay another company to put headstones on their loved ones' graves are upset.
"He took my money. I paid for the stone the engraving the shipping and the installing and still got nothing and he got every body's money and just gone with it," said William Watkins who called 12 for help.
Watkins is one of more than two dozen people who signed a contract with the now defunct Crater Road business, and paid money to Hess Trigard, incorporated, for monuments that were never placed their loved ones graves.
"We're out 4 or 5 thousand dollars," said Nancy Yates who had 4 headstones never delivered.
Petersburg's Commonwealth's Attorney Cassandra Conover says $31,000 total was taken from this group. Conover argued Ron Hess, of Hess Trigard, knew he didn't have a business license but continued to sell headstones.
According to testimony, the City of Petersburg shutdown Hess Trigard in 2009 for non-payment of taxes, Hess paid the taxes and defaulted again the following year. The city took no further action and Hess slipped through the cracks.
His attorney argued the case belongs in civil court and was able to convince the judge, grand larceny and false pretenses charge should be dismissed. Hess walked away a free man all 50 counts thrown out.
"My argument was that he was the same as the business so therefore doesn't use the corporation to protect him that he should be personally liable," Conover said.
"It's a crock. You know it's not right," said Yates.
"This does not preclude a civil lawsuit and it also does not preclude further criminal charges on other matters," Conover added.
"I'm very disappointed he wasn't convicted," Watkins said.
Ron Hess slipped away without a word. The prosecutor wants the families to collectively get a lawyer to go after Hess. I'm not sure they will. They have markers, now, on their loved ones' graves, thanks to the generosity of other companies. Some say they want to move on.