When regular people read something and are moved to make a difference.
Last month, we brought you the story of Patricia Booker, a woman who paid Haren Monument of Newark for a monument for her son’s grave. The company went out of business before delivering what was promised to Booker.
Now, thanks to the generosity of readers and attention from the Division of Consumer Affairs, Booker and other families that did business with Haren are getting a measure of closure.
It all started the day the story ran, when half a dozen readers, all of whom asked to remain anonymous, came forward with offers to help pay for a new monument.
“I have a personal remembrance since childhood of visiting my relatives’ gravesites,” wrote one reader, who offered to donate $1,000. “The headstone is an important part of those visits — and to see any family want it so bad and to be the victim of fraud in such a sad time is disappointing.”
Several companies, too, wanted to help. Drew Memorial of Colonia wanted to donate a new memorial.
So did Albert H. Hopper Monuments of North Arlington.
“I was very upset to see your article,” said Hopper’s John Burns Jr., who also serves as president of the Monument Builders of New Jersey, a trade group. “This situation does not make our industry look very good in the public eye.”
NJHeadstones of Newark also came forward, offering to relocate Booker’s monument to the cemetery at no cost if it could be recovered from the abandoned Haren property.
“We wanted to make sure our community is taken care of in the way they should be,” said NJHeadstones’ Ryan Miller.
Then came a Haren relative who was not involved in the failed monument business.
“I would like to do the right thing here,” the relative wrote in an email, offering to pay for a new stone for Booker’s son’s grave.
“It is amazing that people are so caring and giving to a total stranger,” said Booker, whose voice was choked with tears after hearing about the kindness. “I have nothing but gratitude.”
THE STATE STEPS IN
Before accepting the donations, there was another way to make Booker whole.
After our story ran, Consumer Affairs initiated talks with Christine Haren, the owner of record when Haren Monument went out of business.
Haren gave the state permission to visit the now-abandoned building that for decades was the company’s home. The state would take an inventory of all the headstones there to see if it could find Booker’s, and those of other customers who may not have received what they paid for.
The snowy weather slowed down the process, but investigators set a date to visit the property on Jan. 30.
In the meantime, another dissatisfied Haren customer reached out.
Amesha Kinchen, who now lives in North Carolina, also purchased a headstone from Haren. It was for her mother, Janice Kinchen.
“I made payments on my mom’s tombstone for about five years,” she said, noting it was paid in full in 2010. “Being the oldest daughter and a struggling single mother, it was an accomplishment to get that tombstone for my mother, and even more so once I got that receipt saying ‘paid in full.'”
All that was left were the cemetery charges, and Kinchen said Haren agreed to hold onto the stone until Kinchen had the money.
That wasn’t until 2011. Kinchen said when she contacted Haren, she was told the fee had gone up. Shortly thereafter, Kinchen said, she had the full amount, but calls to Haren went unreturned. Then the number was out of service and the company was gone, Kinchen said.
A complaint to the Better Business Bureau yielded nothing, so Kinchen said she figured she’d have to start all over again.
Then family members saw the Bamboozled column about Booker, and after Kinchen contacted us, we put her in touch with Consumer Affairs.
Investigators would look for her headstone, too.
On Jan. 30, when Consumer Affairs got onto the Haren property, many of the stones were stuck together with snow and ice.
“Like dominos,” a spokesman said.
Investigators catalogued the stones they could identify, but none of them belonged to Booker or Kinchen.
But they did find a stone purchased by Peaches Rollins.
Rollins was unable to afford a headstone in 2006 when her mother, Velma Rollins, was buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Hillside.
But in 2008, Rollins paid $1,100 in cash to Haren for her mother’s stone, she said. She said Haren agreed to hold onto the stone until Rollins could pay the $462 cemetery charges.
Rollins said she started calling Haren in 2010 to complete the transaction, and she left messages, but no one would return her many phone calls. She wrote to a P.O. Box given by the Haren voice mail, but no one responded. Sometime later — Rollins wasn’t sure when — a friend passed Haren and reported there was a lock and chain on the gate.
That’s when Rollins said she realized the company was gone. She complained to Consumer Affairs, but at the time, nothing came of it.
Until the day Consumer Affairs visited Haren. An investigator called Rollins with the news that her mother’s stone had been found. Rollins went to the site immediately.
“When I got there, my heart was pounding,” she said. “When I saw it, there were tears in my eyes. I am so thankful just to have the stone. It’s truly a blessing for me, and my mother can finally rest in peace.”
NJHeadstones, one of the companies that offered to help Booker, volunteered to pick up and temporarily hold the stone until Rollins could come up with the $462 that was still needed for the cemetery charges.
Through it all, Bamboozled had been updating the readers who wanted to help Booker, and when we shared Rollins’ story, a reader contacted the cemetery and arranged to pay the cemetery charges. In the spring, when the weather clears, NJHeadstones will deliver and install the stone free of charge.
“I would like to give thanks to you for being a true blessing to me and my family,” Rollins said. “Please inform the generous donor that I am grateful and appreciative for the kind donation. Tell the donor I send my blessings.”
“Please tell Ms. Booker to keep a smile on her beautiful face and that her son smiles upon her,” she said. “I hope that Ms. Booker can find the same peace.”
Booker said she was grateful that Rollins’ stone was found.
“I just appreciate that something good came for someone else, no matter what happens with me,” Booker said.
Consumer Affairs, which has received five complaints about Haren, will return to the property when the weather thaws to catalog the rest of the stones.
But the Haren relative who offered to help Booker didn’t want to wait that long.
The relative moved into action, paying NJHeadstones to create a new monument for Booker’s son. The relative also paid the cemetery charges, so when the monument is ready, NJHeadstones will deliver it to the gravesite.
Then, John Burns of Albert H. Hopper Monuments called Bamboozled for a status report. He asked, given that Booker was taken care of, if his company could help another customer. We told him that Kinchen’s stone was not found, and because of the ice it would be some time before we knew whether or not it was at Haren.
He offered to provide a new monument for Kinchen at no cost.
“That’s amazing,” Kinchen said. “I just kind of gave up — at least until everybody called me and told me about your article. I will tell [Burns] myself, but please tell him thank you, thank you, thank you so much.”
Consumer Affairs said it’s still considering this “an active matter,” but it had no comment about any possible actions it might take against Haren. It also could not share the names it had uncovered on the headstones that investigators were able to read.
We’ll keep you posted on the case.
Thanks to Consumer Affairs, and to all the companies and individuals who volunteered to help.
It really warms the heart during this chilly time of year.