Tablet Business

Owners confident they can lease east Fort Worth building that housed troubled funeral home

Jim Labenz debated buying the building at the northeast corner of Rosedale Street and Handley Drive. In the end, the businessman thought he’d later kick himself if he didn’t.

Labenz, co-owner of Digitcom Inc., and his partner, Jeff Reis, were in the process of acquiring a warehouse next door on Handley in February to expand their business. The owner was trying to sell the entire 4-acre tract, which also included the other, 9,500-square-foot building. But Labenz said the owner was willing to divide the property.

Labenz and Reis went ahead with the entire purchase. After all, the Johnson Family Mortuary had been a tenant for three years, was ready to renew its lease and apparently had never missed paying rent, he said.

“Usually the prime piece is the corner,” Labenz said. “We’ve already got one tenant in there, we just have to rent out the other half. It will pay itself off over the years. That was our thinking.”

In less than five months, though, the building was thrust into the limelight after seven corpses were found decomposing inside. Labenz and his colleague were left without months of rent, not to mention clean-up bills and the challenge of leasing a property with a sordid past.

Funeral home owners Dondre Johnson and Rachel Hardy-Johnson, his wife, each face seven charges of abuse of a corpse. Hardy-Johnson also has been indicted on federal charges of food stamp fraud, theft of public money and theft of educational funds. And relatives of one of the deceased who went unburied have filed a lawsuit against them.

Labenz said they’ve had some inquiries and showings since posting a “for lease” sign in early September. Those have included calls from potential tenants seeking the space for arcade gaming operations, a resale shop, churches, and, yes, mortuaries, he said.

“We’ve had two inquiries from funeral homes that want to expand,” Labenz said. “Not to say no to it, because I think it’d be a good match; it’s unfortunate that one funeral home did it in for so many others. We’re very selective who we want. I’d rather spend the time and get the right tenant in there.”

Labenz seems to be taking the building’s new notoriety in stride, saying, “We haven’t seen ghosts over there.”

Fort the most part, potential tenants who have looked at the property know what happened. Labenz said he is not going to conceal the events, but added;. “Obviously, we don’t fill them in with all the details.”

“I haven’t come across a situation like this before,” said Bill Makens, an associate broker at The Makens Co., a commercial real estate brokerage firm in Bedford, and this year’s chairman of the trade association Society of Commercial Realtors Fort Worth chapter. “You often come across people who leave a lot of their junk, but nothing quite like this.”

Nonetheless, Makens said, the property can be leased again. It may have to come with some concessions at first, such as lower rent. The notoriety may deter some potential lessees, but others will not be fazed because it is a workplace and not a residence, he said.

“I don’t know if it’s as big a deal. I’d put it on the market and see what happens,” Makens said. “It comes down to how desirable is the market, how much demand there is in the area. If you have a clean bill of health, somebody will rent it.”

Michael Buckley, a professor in the School of Architecture at the University of Texas at Arlington, said it is possible to reposition properties from a previous use. In some cases, he said, the property “can be much better when it’s redone.”

Digitcom builds wireless infrastructure and towers that make cellphones work, primarily in Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma.

In 2010, it bought the former Red Rooster Lumber property at 6454 Lancaster Ave. This year, it bought the adjoining property, the former Handley Feed Store. Labenz said he wanted to move Digitcom to the Handley Drive warehouse after the first of the year.

Eddie Harrison, who owns several buildings on the west side of Handley Drive, sold Labenz the building. Harrison had operated his businesses from there until November. He said he was shocked at the turn of events.

The property is actually two buildings separated by a concrete wall. Harrison said he bought the property in 1982 from a bank after the previous owner, a roofing supply company, fell into bankruptcy.

Leslie Miller Mechanical built the original structure in the 1950s. About 10 years ago, Harrison said he built on to the west side of the building for Jim Harrison, no relation, who operated a carpet and flooring store. The funeral home had been in that portion of the building three years.

“We went over there. They had everything nice and clean and like what you’d think a funeral home would be,” Labenz said of seeing the property before he bought it.

After the sale, things started going south. The couple was hard to get hold of. They didn’t pay the rent. A waste collection company removed the trash bin because it wasn’t getting paid, he said. A Hummer parked behind the building was repossessed.

By the end of May, after working out a payment plan with the Johnsons so they could catch up, Labenz changed the locks on the building, except for one, which gave the couple access to the bodies inside.

One month’s rent came, but Labenz learned that it was money from TV producers who were trying to create a reality show with the Johnsons. He gave access to the whole building back to the couple, but the television deal later fell through.

By mid-July, Labenz saw no activity at the funeral home and became more suspicious when landscapers said they smelled what they thought were dead animals. Going inside, he encountered the horrible odor, then discovered the abandoned corpses.

“Honestly I was expecting to walk in there and see that during the night they grabbed their stuff and moved out.”

Labenz alerted authorities. After the police were done, he called a hazardous materials team, which removed items and sanitized the space. The Johnsons were then allowed to remove furniture, computers, church pews and other belongings. A second crew came in to clean again.

“Through this whole process my wife and I were strong in our faith, we didn’t even let it out to our friends that we were the landlord. We just asked for their prayers,” Labenz said. “My wife and I, our thoughts and prayers really went out to the victims’ families. And we’ve been praying for the Johnsons, believe it or not.”

Labenz and Reis realize they may have to reduce rent or offer free rent to get someone in the property and get foot traffic in there. But, Labenz said, he’s hoping all will be forgotten. He doesn’t want it to be a black eye on the Handley neighborhood’s revitalization efforts.

“We’re going to have to work something out,” Labenz said. “We’re fine with that. I’m thinking long term. I just can’t think of today. I have to think of the future. It’s a good, sound building.”

He plans to re-landscape the grounds and paint the building’s exterior, and will offer incentives for interior remodeling. He’s confident someone will be interested, considering the building’s location — close to Loop 820 and between Interstates 20 and 30.

“I know God will provide within his own timing,” Labenz added. “It may not be exactly the same as my plan that I have today, but as long as I have faith, it will all work out for the best. I don’t have any regrets in purchasing this building, even after all we have been through, and I am very optimistic for the future of this property.”