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Warren Funeral Chapel owners moved six bodies before turning them over to investigators

Monday, August 4, 2008 | 10:49 p.m. CDT; updated 11:15 p.m. CDT, Monday, August 4, 2008
Attorney General Jay Nixon has asked Boone County Circuit Court to close Warren Funeral Chapel, 12 E. Ash St.

COLUMBIA — Six bodies turned over to state investigators on Friday by the owners of the Warren Funeral Chapel were moved from Fulton to Columbia to aid in getting the bodies to the proper authorities, the owners' attorney Dan Viets said.

Viets, added that he was misinformed when he told a reporter Sunday that he thought investigators had missed the bodies during searches of the Columbia funeral home in July.

The owners of the funeral home, Harold Warren Sr. and Harold Warren Jr., agreed to a temporary restraining order on July 30 that closed the funeral home for 15 days after Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon filed a suit against them.

The order means both the Columbia and the Fulton funeral home will not operate, Viets said.

Nixon's lawsuit states several bodies were being held at the Columbia funeral home with various code violations, including the body of a woman who died of hepatitis that had not been embalmed or refrigerated for 10 months.

The bodies are being held at the Boone County Medical Examiner's Office until the relatives can be notified and identify them, said Boone County Medical Examiner Dori Burke.

She said the bodies had all been embalmed when they arrived.

On another issue raised about the Warrens handling of cremation urns, Viets said empty urns found at the funeral home and marked with names of people who had died some time ago were empty because the families had transferred the ashes to other urns.

"Anything else is unfounded speculation," Viets said.

On Aug. 1, Kathy Johnson filed a separate lawsuit against Warren Funeral Chapel, both Warrens and the owner and caretaker of Rock Bridge Cemetery, John Doe "Dave" Turner, that alleges they violated her control of her mother's post-death arrangements. The petition also seeks punitive damages based on the mental anguish suffered by Johnson and others whose loved ones' bodies the suit alleges were handled with a lack of care.

The case states that Warren Funeral Chapel, the Warrens and Turner violated Johnson's right of sepulcher, which state law defines as "the right to choose and control the burial, cremation or other final disposition of a dead human body."

In March 2006, Johnson and Warren Funeral Chapel made arrangements for the funeral and burial of Johnson's mother, Beckie Harris.

Johnson said she has been unable to locate the grave of her mother, and the lawsuit alleges that the Warrens and Turner lost her mother's body and might have cremated it or not buried it at all.

Johnson's attorney Pete Nacy said the rights of the contract between the chapel and Johnson were violated and caused her emotional distress.

Viets said he initially will be representing the Warrens in this lawsuit, as well, and he will contact Johnson's attorneys Tuesday.

Nacy filed a motion on Johnson's behalf to define the case as a class action lawsuit, which would mean others would be invited to join the case. A Boone County Circuit Court judge would need to certify the case as a class action, which Nacy said could take a few weeks.

He said even if it does not get certified as a class action, they will take the case forward without any additional parties.

"We're going to be making a process available to the public to communicate with us in that regard very soon," Nacy said.

Nacy said because of the nature of the case and from discussions he and his colleagues have had with clients, he predicts at least 40 to 50 people will come forward.

"It hits home in every home," Nacy said. "We all have people in our families who die."

Nacy said Monday he was unable to comment about whether he has received complaints from clients about the Warren Funeral Chapel located in Fulton.

Johnson had worked out an agreement for a discounted funeral, the Missourian previously reported, and Nacy said he's not aware of any complaints by the Warrens about Johnson's payment or timeliness of the payment for the funeral.

"I'm sure I'll be taking a look at it and discussing it with the Warrens," he said.

Patricia Johnson, Kathy Johnson's niece, said she is contemplating joining the class action lawsuit if the judge certifies it. However, she's not certain about what that entails and is thinking about filing her own lawsuit against Warren Funeral Chapel and Turner.

Patricia Johnson's sister, Mable Lee Mercer Shelley, died in November, and Patricia Johnson said she is still searching for answers about where Shelley's remains are.

"I want justice for my family and all families involved," Patricia Johnson said Sunday while she protested outside Second Missionary Baptist Church, where the NAACP held a benefit for the elder Warren.

Patricia Johnson, 44, had originally planned to have her sister buried at a family cemetery in Charleston, she said, but the elder Warren convinced her to use Rock Bridge Cemetery.

Patricia Johnson said her sister didn't have insurance, but Warren was still paid all the money he asked for. The money for the burial plot at Rock Bridge Cemetery was given to him through family, churches and even the school that Shelley's 7-year-old son, Raymon, attends. Since his mother died, Raymon now lives with Patricia Johnson.

"We paid for my sister up front," Patricia Johnson said. "We didn't owe him any money."

She said the elder Warren told her he was no longer giving discounts or allowing late payments.

Patricia Johnson said she's been trying to contact the elder Warren to get receipts for her purchase, both for the burial plot and for the $425 she gave him to open and close the ground. But she hasn't received anything.

"Now he won't answer the phones or anything," she said.

Patricia Johnson said she is also angry about seeing her sister's grave site dug up. She said she has pictures of the cemetery's upturned earth. This, she said, makes her assume the Warrens might be burying several more bodies together in the cemetery, which she said the elder Warren told her is used by several low-income families.

"He said it was a nice, clean cemetery," she said.

"I think it's just one big pit that they've been putting all of these bodies in," she said.

She said she hopes the investigation will lead to authorities exhuming the bodies buried at the site. "I want to look at her my own self and see if it's my sister."

If it is, Patricia Johnson said she wants the body moved at the Warrens' and Turner's expense to the family cemetery where she had originally planned the burial.

 


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