MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) – Mobile County prosecutors this week asked a judge to revoke the bond of Joseph Lee Bonner-Bey, a funeral director charged with two counts of abuse of a corpse.
The bond revocation proceedings, scheduled for Wednesday, will turn on allegations that Bonner-Bey, 48, of Prichard, violated the terms of his release by leaving the state without the court’s permission. It is just the latest in mounting problems that include a pair of civil lawsuits.
Prosecutors contend that Bonner-Bey went to Biloxi, Mississippi, on July 6, to Moss Point, Mississippi on July 13, and to Florida’s Escambia County on Monday. Assistant District Attorney Clay Rossi said the trips are a clear-cut violation of the defendant’s conditions of release.
“The rule’s the rule,” he told FOX10 News.
Bonner-Bey’s attorney, Jerome Carter, did not immediately return a call seeking comment. But he filed an objection in Mobile County District Court this week arguing that his client was in Biloxi to perform burial services as part of his job and that prosecutors were aware of the nature of his business.
Bonner-Bey “has not violated the spirit of the conditions of probation,” Carter wrote.
The pending charges stem from the alleged mistreatment of bodies buried at a Prichard cemetery owned by a church that owns the Heritage Memorial Gardens Funeral Home, where Bonner-Bey was a funeral director. Prosecutors accuse him of performing a pair of improper burials and of improperly embalming them.
Prosecutors will present evidence at a preliminary hearing scheduled for the end of the month.
Heritage cited by regulators
The criminal case follows several run-ins between the Alabama Board of Funeral Service and both Heritage and Bonner-Bey, according to records obtained by FOX10 News under the Alabama Open Records Act.
The board, which regulates funeral directors and embalmers, negotiated a settlement agreement last year with three people and Heritage in order to resolve allegations of operating without a license.
Two women working as apprentice funeral directors admitted to performing the duties of a funeral home director without being licensed by the board. Each agreed to pay a $500 fine. Director Jimmy A. Sanders and the funeral home admitted to aiding and abetting Harmon and Sullivan in performing those activities and of failing to supervise them.
Sanders and the funeral home agreed to pay fines in the amount of $3,000 to settle the case. Heritage Funeral Home also went on probation for six months. That period ended on Feb. 1 of this year, just 3½ months before Mobile County sheriff’s deputies raided the facility as part of its criminal probe.
Messages left Thursday and Friday at the business went unreturned.
Funeral board executive secretary Charles Perine said he personally discovered those violations, but not as part of an inspection.
“On this particular case, it was – I was attending a funeral service (for a family friend) and witnessed these … violations,” he said.
Funeral board records also point to a pair of cases against Bonner-Bey when he was the director of another funeral home, the now-defunct Tri-State Mortuary on Broad Street in Mobile.
Records show that Tri-State Mortuary failed a routine inspection in 2013. The report indicated that the funeral home had no caskets or centralized embalming. It also had inadequate plumbing and lighting fixtures, overgrown grass and broken windows in the office, according to the inspection.
“And he chose to close the establishment until he can bring the establishment up to the standards of the law,” Perine said. “And while it was closed, he accepted remains and continued to practice.”
Bonner-Bey cited in second case
Bonner-Bey in January 2014 settled administrative charges over his continued operation. But after he failed to pay a $15,000 fine and a $150 inspection fee required by the agreement, the funeral board brought new charges.
This time, Bonner-Bey fought the allegations. But an administrative law judge ruled against him, and the board adopted the judge’s recommendation that Bonner-Bey serve two years on probation and lose his funeral director license if he did not pay the full amount by July 5, 2014.
Bonner-Bey paid the fine and served his probationary period. Records show he currently holds a funeral director license and also obtained an embalmer license in March of this year. At one point, Perine said, Bonner-Bey had an ownership interest in Memorial Gardens. He gave that up in February but continued to work there, according to Perine.
Records show Bonner-Bey currently holds a funeral director license. He also obtained an embalmer license in March of this year.
In addition to the criminal proceedings, Bonner-Bey faces a pair of civil suits. The first, filed in Mobile County Circuit Court in June, accuses him of mishandling the body of a gunshot victim when he was director of Tri-State Mortuary. The victim’s sister saw that the body that was in Bonner-Bey’s care was leaking fluid, and the defendant put the body in an “unsavory SUV” instead of a promised limousine, according to the complaint.
The second, filed last month, accuses him of failing to properly embalm the body of a man who recently had died and of failing to properly seal the casket. The civil complaint alleges that the casket and vault were less than a foot below ground, on land that was prone to flooding and not zoned for use as a cemetery.
Bonner-Bey has denied the allegations. On Friday, he filed a written response to the most recent lawsuit maintaining that he was neither the managing funeral director nor an embalmer at Heritage Memorial Gardens during the period covered by the allegations. He stated that he “is merely the Pastor of the Church that own the building which was at that time leased by Heritage Funeral Home.”