After years of waiting, Felicia Braxton will soon finally be able to put her mother to rest.
On Mothers Day, Braxton — who has yet to receive the remains of her mother, Aundrea Jones, who died in 2014 — received a note from an out-of-state woman who believed she had Jones’ ashes instead of those of her own loved one.
Braxton, who originally received the ashes of someone other than her mother from the Johnson Family Mortuary, turned the information over to the Tarrant County district attorney’s office.
On Friday, she learned that the ashes from out-of-state are, after all, her mother’s.
Braxton is among those calling on Texas lawmakers to pass a bill that would boost the penalties for those convicted of abuse of a corpse, from a misdemeanor to a state jail felony.
“This bill really needs to pass,” Braxton said. “When we have people that are doing what they are doing to these corpses, it brings some emotional damage to the family.
“I need this to make businesses in this industry think about what they are doing.”
The measure, Senate Bill 524, has passed the Senate and is among the many bills on the House calendar for consideration Sunday.
But it’s late in the session and state lawmakers only have until May 29 before the session ends. Various legislative deadlines mean the bill must be approved by Tuesday to have a chance of making it to the governor’s desk for consideration.
“I think there’s time for it to pass,” said state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, who is carrying the bill in the House.
Braxton was among those who used the Johnson Family Mortuary and were shocked in 2014 when inspectors found bodies there that hadn’t been embalmed or were decomposing.
Some families, such as Braxton’s, received ashes that weren’t those of their loved ones.
Owner Dondre Johnson of Arlington was convicted of nine misdemeanor counts of abuse of a corpse and two counts of theft for taking money to cremate or bury several bodies but not following through.
The 2nd Court of Appeals in Fort Worth last year reversed the two theft convictions. A petition for discretionary review of the ruling has been filed with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Johnson remains jailed at the Bradshaw unit in Henderson, Texas Department of Criminal Justice records show.
Johnson’s wife, Rachel Hardy-Johnson, pleaded guilty to two counts of abuse of a corpse and one count of theft. She is serving an unrelated 21-month federal prison sentence for food-stamp benefit fraud.
Others fighting for SB 524 include Mary Hurst, a 67-year-old Alvarado woman whose father was laid to rest near Chicago but couldn’t be found when family tried to retrieve his remains to bring to Texas. Hurst’s mother, Irmagard Ilic, was having heart problems and wanted to buried here beside her husband.
We are hopeful that this [bill] will pass. This is such an important issue to a lot of people.
Mary Hurst, an Alvarado woman whose father was laid to rest near Chicago but couldn’t be found when family tried to retrieve his remains to bring to Texas
Even after unearthing more than 100 caskets, they couldn’t find her father, who was buried in a metal casket. Hurst believes her mother “died from a broken heart” when she realized she couldn’t spend eternity next to her husband.
Hurst has been working with state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, on this issue, not just because of her situation, but also because of those caught up in the Johnson Family Mortuary situation.
“I knew something needed to be done,” she said, adding that she had her mother’s body cremated and keeps those ashes at home so “we know where she is.”
“We are hopeful that this [bill] will pass,” Hurst said. “This is such an important issue to a lot of people.”
Currently, abuse of a corpse is a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by as much as one year in jail and a fine of up to $4,000. That means abuse of a corpse is on the same level as burglary or theft up to $1,500, Birdwell said.
“Unfortunately, the punishment described in law does not always fit the severity of the crime,” he said during a committee hearing earlier this session.
In the Johnson Family Mortuary case, Birdwell noted that prosecutors found it hard to find an appropriate punishment when they were limited to “abuse of a corpse.”
Those who intentionally choose to not pay the deceased the respect due should be given a fitting punishment.
State Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury
SB 524 would increase abuse of a corpse to a state jail felony, which would mean between 180 days and two years in jail and a fine of up to $10,000.
“The punishment for the crime should increase, which would give prosecutors another tool to achieve a fit punishment,” Birdwell has said.
“In times of grief, families should know that they could trust those with whom they choose to purchase funeral services for deceased loved ones,” he said. “Those who intentionally choose to not pay the deceased the respect due should be given a fitting punishment.”
Staff writer Deanna Boyd contributed to this report, which also includes information from Star-Telegram archives.