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A&E 'Family Plots' mortuary owner has "con man" past


By Wade Paulsen, 04/26/2004 

Once again, a heretofore-concealed criminal record of a reality-TV show participant has been dug up. In this case, though, it was convictions for grand theft and embezzlement that were the skeletons in the closet of ... a funeral-home owner/manager.

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Richard ("Rick") Sadler, one of the stars of A&E's Family Plots, which focuses on the personal lives and business issues in his Poway Bernardo Mortuary in Poway, California (near San Diego), was characterized by a former business partner as "a con man" who "has never done a straight thing in his life" in an article in the Lodi News-Sentinel.

Sadler, who claims to have grown up in the funeral business, was convicted of embezzlement in Contra Costa County (outside of San Francisco) in 1995 for bilking a business partner out of $100,000 in the sale of an airplane. He was behind the short-lived "Central California Horsemen's Complex" in Lodi, a business which disappeared overnight ... with thousands of dollars in investors' cash. He was convicted of grand theft in 1986. In addition, according to the North County Times, Sadler does not hold a valid funeral director's license -- which makes his continued operation of Poway Bernardo Mortuary unlawful.

In the Lodi case, Sadler opened the equestrian center with much hoopla in November 1992. The center was touted as a magnet for national horse events -- but it quickly ran into issues with Lodi city code compliance. On the morning of February 4, 1993, only about three months after the opening, workers reported to the center ... to find that the entire equestrian operation had packed up and disappeared into the night.

Ultimately, the San Joaquin County District Attorney's Office decided not to pursue criminal charges against Sadler, stating that the county did not have the money to prosecute white-collar crime and recommending instead that victims file civil lawsuits against him. Whether victims did so is uncertain, but the chances of recovery in such lawsuits is usually either "slim" or "none," and "slim" just left town.

Sadler was not so lucky in the 1995 airplane case, and he ended up serving eight months of a 16-month sentence in Pelican Bay State Prison. Additionally, another person who purchased a supposed aviation business from Sadler sued him and won a judgment for breach of contract and fraud when it turned out that the aviation business did not exist. Oh, and Sadler's conviction for grand theft in 1986 was for embezzling money from a mortuary, for which he received five years probation and was ordered to pay back $30,000. Neither sentence seems to have deterred him from further wrongdoing.

It seems stunning that a person with so much history of preying on innocents should be permitted to hold a position that puts him in contact with people at one of the most vulnerable moments in their lives. But, in fact, it turns out that Sadler does not have a valid California funeral director's license either.

Sadler's original funeral director's license was revoked in 1987 after his grand theft conviction. However, despite his subsequent embezzlement conviction and prison term, Sadler's funeral director's license was reinstated in 1999, about two years after he got out of prison, after he claimed to have reformed.

In January 2003, though, Sadler once again found himself in trouble. This time, according to the North County Times, Sadler was operating an unlicensed mortuary service called San Diego Mortuary Services that used the Poway Bernardo Mortuary phone numbers in advertisements. He was cited both for operating an unlicensed service and for unprofessional conduct when he refused to cooperate with the investigation and was fined $2,002. The renewal of his license was frozen pending payment of the fine, which he has not paid. Thus, Sadler has been working as an unlicensed funeral director since January.

In his defense, Sadler told the North County Times that he bilked people out of their savings in an effort to raise money for his medical costs related to medical treatments for his son, who died last year at the age of 24. We imagine that his excuses make the people from whom he stole feel a lot better about being his victims.

On its official web site for the show, A&E characterizes Rick as "a recovering workaholic" who "lost all his money in the last market crash" -- a fiction that indicates A&E had done little background checking into Richard Sadler prior to casting his funeral home as the center of the show. Perhaps as a result, the focus of the show is on the Wissmiller family -- father Chuck, eldest daughter Melissa (Rick's erstwhile finacee), middle daughter Shonna (the star of the show), youngest daughter Emily (who appeared to have been added to the mortuary staff just for this show), and father Chuck (a one-time pugilist who seems to have taken a few too many blows to the head).

TV critics have had a hard time deciding whether the show, which has generally been compared to HBO's mortuary-based satiric soap opera Six Feet Under, is worthy of praise for its "docu-soap" depiction of a family under stress or deserving of a quick exit for its trivialization of death. In the praise category are reviews from Newsday, NPR and the Houston Chronicle; in the opposite camp are the Boston Globe, the New York Times and the York (PA) Daily Record. Since we agree with the latter writer that puns about this show are "dead tired," we will simply say that we refuse to hold the show to a higher standard than Six Feet Under just because it's reality instead of make-believe, but we never saw a plot on Six Feet Under as far-fetched as a longtime con man running a funeral home, either.

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