One of the co-owners of an east Fort Worth mortuary was arrested Friday, accused of abusing seven corpses found unattended and in advanced stages of decomposition inside her family’s business earlier this week.
Rachel Hardy-Johnson, 35, was arrested on seven warrants at her Arlington home by fugitive officers around lunchtime Friday. She declined to comment as she was escorted into the Fort Worth city jail.
As of 9 p.m., her husband, Dondre Johnson, had not been arrested.
Dondre Johnson was released from the Tarrant County Jail at 1:34 a.m. Friday. He had been jailed Wednesday night in an unrelated child support case.
The two are accused of treating in “an offensive manner” the remains of seven of the eight bodies found Tuesday morning inside the Johnson Family Mortuary, 1051 S. Handley Drive. Abuse of a corpse is a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and a $4,000 fine.
While police would not say how long the bodies were suspected of being at the mortuary, death records indicate five died in March, April and May.
The body of 60-year-old Karen Pearl Jones appears to have been there the longest.
Tony Jones Jr., the woman’s nephew, said his aunt died of natural causes on March 25. She had been placed in a casket for the funeral but was supposed to have been cremated after the service, he said.
Jones said the mortuary staff eventually gave his cousin what they said were Karen Jones’ ashes, although later than initially promised. He said his cousin was also given a black box to store the ashes in because an urn she had ordered had still not come in.
Now, he said, family members wonder what they were actually given. The ashes have been turned over to authorities.
“Was it another person or regular ashes they just put in there?” he asked.
A complicated case
The building’s landlord called police Tuesday morning to report he had found the bodies inside after previously ordering the mortuary owners to vacate the building for nonpayment of rent.
Officials have said that all but one of the eight bodies — six adults and two stillborn infants — showed advanced signs of decomposition. None of the bodies showed signs of trauma or foul play, the Tarrant County medical examiner’s office has said.
Sgt. Raymond Bush, a police spokesman, praised the homicide unit for obtaining arrest warrants in what he described as a complicated case in such a short amount of time.
“Since they were originally licensed to deal with deceased persons, that added an extra element where we had to make sure, familiarize ourselves with the law, and see at what point did they neglect their duty,” Bush said. “It’s not the same as if an individual just had no background in the mortuary business and had a body in their backyard. That would be a much clearer cut case.”
Dondre Johnson’s brother, Derrick Johnson, also a co-owner at the funeral home, has not been arrested in the case. Police say they do not believe Derrick Johnson was involved in the alleged mishandling of the corpses.
Hardy-Johnson was in the Mansfield jail Friday night with bail set at $10,500.
“Our investigators are used to seeing sights like this at homicide crime scenes,” officer Sharron Neal said in a news release issued Friday afternoon. “They are not accustomed to seeing this at a funeral home or mortuary where family members have entrusted the proprietors to respectfully dispose of their loved ones.”
‘He knew we had bodies inside’
Though she would not comment Friday, Hardy-Johnson previously said that the landlord had locked the doors last month because they were behind on their rent. When they got behind again, she said, the landlord returned to the business Tuesday before their opening time of 9 a.m. “so he could lock us out again.”
“There was a legal way to do this,” Hardy-Johnson said. “You cannot just throw us out. He knew we had bodies inside. We’ve been in this location for four years without a problem. He did not care how much hurt he caused those families.”
Bush said the abuse of a corpse charges being sought in the case arise from “treating the remains of a person in an offensive manner.”
“They were in varying stages of decay and some quite advanced,” Bush said.
Dondre Johnson has previously acknowledged that the bodies were not refrigerated but said it was not required by the state.
An official with the Texas Funeral Service Commission has said that bodies must be maintained between 34 degrees and 40 degrees, or be embalmed, or be encased in a container that ensures against the seepage of fluids or the escape of odors.
Police have not disclosed whether any of the bodies were embalmed or how they were being stored.
Dondre Johnson has said some of the bodies had been embalmed and were ready to be interred while others were in caskets and ready to be moved. The bodies that had not been embalmed were covered in black garbage bags, he said.
One of the bodies, later identified by the medical examiner’s office as Chewe Mwangilwa, 42, of Zambi, was ready to be shipped to Africa, Dondre Johnson said.
Four of the others were identified as: Patricia Baptiste, 90; Victoria Vasquez, 53, who died of heart disease; Helen Washington Jones, 70, who died of lung cancer; and Deborah Whitney, 48, who died of breast cancer.
Names have not been released for the two stillborn infants. Linda Anderson, a spokeswoman with the medical examiner’s office, said Friday that DNA testing is being done on the two babies to confirm their identities.
Jones said that another aunt, upon seeing the news of the discovery of the bodies, called the cremation company directly to check whether her sister had been cremated.
“The cremation company said they never got her body,” Jones said. “We were angry. We were sad. We were upset. We’re still upset.”
Jones said that while he’s glad criminal charges are forthcoming, he believes it’s unfair that the owners currently only face misdemeanor charges.
“They mishandled people’s family,” he said. “That was wrong what they did to these families. Eight families have to go through this all over again.”
Complaints against mortuary
The arrest comes as five complaints are pending with the Texas Funeral Service Commission against the Johnson Family Mortuary, two of which are expected to be addressed when the commission meets in September, an attorney for the commission has said. Details of the complaints were not released by the commission, which said they were confidential.
Dondre and Derrick Johnson also owe thousands of dollars to a previous building owner and to the Texas Funeral Service Commission in unpaid rent and penalties, records show.
The commission shut down the brothers’ D&D Johnson Funeral Home in 2010 because they owe more than $13,600 in penalties assessed for violations, Kyle Smith, a staff attorney for the commission, has said.
D&D Johnson Funeral Home, and the twin brothers, had also been sued in 2010 by Hickman Investments for unpaid rent. A default judgment was entered against the brothers for the five-year lease period, the unpaid lease payments, and attorneys fess and other costs for more than $166,000, court documents said.
Derrick Johnson has said the suit and penalties against D&D Johnson Funeral Home have nothing to do with the Johnson Family Mortuary.
“We learn from our mistakes,” Derrick Johnson has said.