A man arrested for corpse abuse after deputies exhumed remains from three gravesites at a cemetery he operated is accusing the city of Prichard and various others of ruining his reputation locally.
Joseph Lee Bonner filed a civil lawsuit against the city, Prichard Code Enforcement Officer Sammy Green and other unnamed defendants this week in the middle of several other pending criminal and civil cases he faces for allegedly burying his customers in “horrible” conditions.
Bonner was charged with two counts of abuse of a corpse in June after Mobile County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) deputies dug up and inspected three vaults at Heritage Memorial Gardens cemetery. The search was the result of a months-long investigation that began after complaints were received from relatives of the deceased.
At the time, investigators said they found graves that were too shallow, caskets that weren’t properly sealed and bodies that weren’t properly embalmed — some resting in standing water. Funeral regulations aren’t a criminal matter, but the conditions were so bad MCSO charged Bonner with corpse abuse.
In his federal lawsuit, Bonner claims he was falsely imprisoned over those charges and his personal and professional reputations were substantially harmed by the situation. His lawsuit is specifically targeting the city of Prichard, likely because of actions it took to have the property cease burials last year.
As Lagniappe reported, Heritage Memorial Gardens first made headlines in early 2019 after it was shut down. City officials then issued citations to the owners for allegedly performing funerals without a health department permit or any kind of business license in violation of the city’s zoning ordinances.
As part of their investigation, deputies have been untangling a web of business relationships with Bonner and Cedric McMillan, whose family owns and operates the now-closed Heritage Funeral Home in Mobile. His church, New Birth Community Church, also runs the cemetery Bonner allegedly used.
McMillan was eventually charged with three counts of abuse of a corpse as well.
In his lawsuit, Bonner is now claiming Green — through his position as Prichard’s code enforcement officer — “conspired with other competitors in the funeral business” to defame his character by accusing him of “digging up dead bodies at Heritage Memorial Gardens and storing them at his church.”
Those allegations are supported by statements from MCSO investigators recently filed as part of a pending civil forfeiture action the state brought against Bonner and McMillan in an effort to seize multiple cars and hearses used by the funeral business they jointed operated.
During a search warrant executed on Bonner’s church in May 2019, investigators say they found three caskets that appeared to be in “used” condition — including two that were in the process of being restored when they arrived. A third casket was said to have contained dirt, visible stains on the interior and an indentation that appeared to have been made by a human body. A cadaver-detecting canine was then brought in and, according to police, it alerted to the third casket almost “immediately.”
However, the same court documents also indicate it was Green who told MCSO investigators “he had received information that human remains were being stored” at that location.
Bonner claims he’s since lost at least $70,000 in revenue because of the damage to his business reputation and because the conditions of his bond prohibit him from making contact with Heritage Funeral Home or the cemetery. He’s seeking $10 million in damages from the city and Green.
Recent filings in Bonner’s criminal case elaborate on his theories about the case MCSO built against him. In a motion asking a judge to grant him permission to return to work, Bonner argued some of the claims made by investigators weren’t true and experts they relied on from the Alabama Board of Funeral Services have made contradictory statements since he was first arrested.
Despite claims from the victims’ family members, Bonner argues he wasn’t the one who embalmed their loved ones and wasn’t acting as a “managing funeral director” when they were buried. He also claims Mark Craddick, chairman of the state funeral board, has since said “he did not say the bodies were improperly embalmed” and “did not see any water on the bodies” when they were exhumed.
State prosecutors have yet to respond to Bonner’s claim, which he filed on his own behalf on Jan. 3. The criminal case against him is currently on hold awaiting a decision from a Mobile County grand jury about whether he’ll be formally indicted in Circuit Court on charges of corpse abuse.
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