Friday, April 22, 2016

TOP STORY >> Funeral home is guilty in abuse of corpses

Leader senior staff writer

Circuit Judge Chris Piazza on Thursday dismissed five counts of abuse of a corpse against Leroy Wood and his son Rodney Wood, the majority owners and operators of Arkansas Funeral Care LLC in Jacksonville, but the judge accepted guilty pleas to the five counts by the company.

Neither man received a jail sentence. A fine of as much as $100,000 may yet be assessed against the company. The amount of the fine is scheduled to be set at 9 a.m. May 19.

The five counts were among 13 in all filed by the county. One has been settled and the others are currently being litigated in civil court, according to Pulaski County Deputy Prosecutor Tonia Acker.

The manager of the funeral home, Edward Snow, is scheduled to go to trial on the same counts June 27-28, after a May 24 pretrial hearing.

In a statement submitted by Leroy Wood, he said he was away from the business Jan. 2 through Jan. 12, 2015, because of illness.

“I only entered the building for a few minutes on Tuesday, Jan. 6 to join Ed Snow in the front of the business to terminate Mike Jones for suspected theft of property from one of our client’s loved ones,” according to the statement.

“While there, I did not ask about operations, volume, staffing, capacity or how to make up for the loss of Mike Jones from those assisting with the actual handling of human remains,” he wrote.

“I did not call or otherwise attempt to supervise or obtain additional staff to assist Ed Snow and his crew. I did not know the funeral home was experiencing a record level of volume that week.”

Wood said that he returned to work Jan. 12 to discover the cooler was filled beyond capacity and additional remains were stored outside the refrigerated area.

He implemented a second shift for cremation, called several other mortuaries, one of which agreed to help with storage and cremation, and he cut the heat off in the work area, ventilating with cold outside air.

“My family and I are deeply sorry that this negligence on the part of our company occurred and regret the pain it has caused,” the statement concluded.

The defense had been prepared to challenge the legality of the search by investigator Leslie Stokes of the Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors, saying the warrant under which it was exercised, was “out of bounds,” according to Defense Attorney Dustin McDaniel.

The corporation pleaded guilty to abuse of a corpse in connection with James Cummings, Debra Prolow, Janice King, Raymond Heathcock and John Loveless. Acker read an assessment of the bodies discovered at the time, saying they were variously decomposing, with skin slippage, leakage and discoloration.

According to affidavits, “There is evidence of multiple bodies stored outside of the cooler over a period of time in January…Bodies were stacked on top of one another, on pallets, on the washer and dryer and on every available space they could find.

“Coffee cans with deodorizer were placed next to bodies to help with the odor in the room. The employees reported they were astonished that management refused to stop taking bodies when there was nowhere left to put them.”

Employees told police there was an unusual number of death calls in January 2015. They said management refused to pay overtime and wouldn’t cremate or bury anyone until services were paid in full.

The employees also claim the Woods denied requests for additional help, equipment and overtime because they said they couldn’t afford it.

“It’s not very often we charge a corporation,” prosecutor Acker said. “The families suffered a lot.”