A former superintendent of a cemetery has admitted fraudulently mis-selling burial plots to grieving families in a “shocking” nine-year campaign.

William Henderson stole thousands of pounds from the archdiocese that runs Edinburgh’s Mount Vernon Cemetery by illegally selling forged burial deeds to vulnerable people when they were bereaved.

His criminal scheme at the city’s only Catholic cemetery involved 13 individual instances of fraud between 2006 and 2015, totalling more than £14,000.

Loading article content

The 46-year-old pleaded guilty to a single fraud charge when he appeared at Edinburgh Sheriff Court on Thursday.

The sheriff hearing the case warned him he faces a probable jail term when he returns to court for sentencing in a month.

The Archdiocese of St Andrews & Edinburgh said it “deeply regrets” the actions of the former employee and is supporting the affected families.

The court heard how Henderson pretended to his victims that burial plots were available for sale at the cemetery in the Liberton area of the city, when they were not, causing people to hand over money to him.

He altered official records to make it appear the plots were vacant and produced false documents purporting to be deeds showing ownership of the space.

He had no authority to sell the plots as they were either already owned by others, situated in common ground, or had remains interred in them.

Narrating the circumstances of one case, fiscal depute Aidan Higgins told the court one man bought a plot from Henderson for £850, but discovered a few weeks later that there might be a “difficulty” with the transaction.

He said: “The deeds which had been provided by the accused were studied and found to be false.

“The plot which had been sold was a real plot. The plot had been sold to another family in 1988 and was not therefore available for sale.

“Checks confirmed there was no record of the £850 payment.”

The financial losses stemming from the case have been borne by the Church, the prosecutor added.

Sheriff Donald Corke deferred sentencing to September 29 to allow for the preparation of a criminal justice social work report.

Continuing his bail to an address in Midlothian, the sheriff told Henderson: “This is clearly a very serious matter and you should be aware that although all options are available to the court custody is the most likely outcome.”

The cemetery operated at arms length from the central administration of the archdiocese.

Henderson’s criminal actions came to light following administrative changes at the top of the archdiocese and police were called in. Henderson was charged in late 2016.

The archdiocese has welcomed the conviction of the accused, who was employed at the cemetery from 1997 until 2015.

Chief operating officer Dr Elspeth Atkinson said after the hearing: “There are two victims of Willie Henderson’s criminal behaviour: the Archdiocese of St Andrews & Edinburgh, which has been defrauded of thousands of pounds but, much more significantly and disturbingly, is the impact on those families who were exploited by him at a time when they were grieving and vulnerable.

“That’s why his crimes are so shocking.

“The archdiocese deeply regrets the criminal activities of Willie Henderson and has been working hard over the past months to offer both pastoral and practical support to those families affected by his actions and we will, of course, continue to do so in the months to come.”

Detective Chief Inspector Paul Grainger, who led the Police Scotland investigation, said the case meant the victims had to relive painful memories and discuss the deaths of loved ones.

He said: “William Henderson targeted vulnerable families when they were grieving and distressed.

“He offered them plots within Mount Vernon Cemetery, when no such sites were available, for his own individual financial gain.

“His deception and exploitation led to Henderson amassing thousands of pounds from these families, which he hid from his employers.

“This was a challenging and complex investigation from the beginning and involved officers having to engage with families who had been defrauded by Henderson over a number of years.”