One of the men at the center of a sprawling investigation into an alleged illegal cemetery in Prichard was carried away in handcuffs Wednesday after police found what they believe to be improperly buried caskets and corpses on the property.
Funeral director Joseph Lee Bonner was arrested on two counts of abuse of a corpse after deputies from the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office spent hours exhuming three graves at the Heritage Memorial Gardens cemetery, which MCSO has been investigating for months.
“Of two vaults and caskets that we’ve opened up, the vaults were not sealed and there appeared to have been no attempt to seal them,” Capt. Paul Burch, an investigator with MCSO said after Bonner was arrested Wednesday. “The families that purchased this particular package expected the vaults to be sealed to protect the integrity of their loved ones’ remains.”
Burch said Bonner initially told investigators he wasn’t involved with the funeral or burial operations, but family members have since said they worked with him directly.
The exhumations began at 6 a.m. this morning after MCSO deputies identified graves within Heritage Memorial Gardens that appeared to be caved in and were emitting a foul odor.
Burch said deputies today dug out vaults and caskets with standing water in them, even though the families of those decedents say they paid for a proper vault to prevent that kind of incursion.
According to Burch, less than 8 inches of dirt covered some of the vaults, which he said is much less than the funeral industry’s standard of around 2 feet. He also said there was evidence some bodies may have not been fully or properly embalmed, leading to decomposition.
“What we did learn is that there’s no set standard for how much embalming fluid you need to use, but in these cases, there was a very minimal amount used and that’s why you’re smelling human decomposition,” Burch said. “There’s no other smell like that.”
There aren’t criminal laws governing burial procedures, but because of the conditions of the remains inside some of the graves, Burch said deputies have worked closely with prosecutors to obtain search warrants for the cemetery and bring charges against Bonner for corpse abuse.
There were also other gravesites where investigators believe no burial ever happened.
“This is a first for me in a little over 30 years. We’re learning minute by minute the different processes of the burial program,” he said. “We’re going into this process case by case because that’s the only fair way to do it. I want to be really clear that we’re not out here targeting any particular individual or any particular business – we’re responding to complaints from citizens.”
Those complaints were initially brought to law enforcement after family members reached out to reporters with NBC 15 earlier this year. Some raised concerns about the conditions their family members were buried in, and others suspected their loved ones may have not been buried at all.
Because the investigation is centered around individual complaints from families, Burch said it could be a slow process moving forward as they continue to sift through those on a case-by-case basis. He does believe more gravesites will likely have to be investigated and possibly exhumed.
Additional family members reached out to investigators at the scene of the excavation Wednesday, and Burch told Lagniappe this afternoon he’s received more calls since.
“There are a couple of family members that want their loved ones taken out of this location and put into another cemetery, but that is their expense and that’s up to them,” Burch said. “Today we put everything back just like we found it – probably better than we found it. It will be up to those families if they want to move their loved one to another location in the future.”
At least one woman has already filed a lawsuit over the burial of her daughter.
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.
In a letter from its board of directors ahead of the exhumations, the church said the cemetery is operated as part of its “outreach” ministry and performs burials for free. Despite that, family members have told MCSO they were paying for services — some of which they did not receive.
The letter from the board also said the church had been cooperating with the ongoing investigation and had hoped it could be resolved without “disturbing the dead.”
“However, because of numerous lies and vicious attacks from unknown individuals, that has become the reality in order for the truth to prevail,” the letter reads. “Our church has made every effort to submit all information possible to show proof of our legal standing as a church cemetery and records of the instruments of the fourteen individuals in the cemetery.”
The question of the cemetery’s legal status was raised after the city of Prichard wrote citations for McMillian, his church and Heritage Funeral Home for performing funerals without a health permit, a business license and in violation of the city’s zoning codes in February.
At the time, NBC 15 reported citations were the results of complaints from neighbors who said the property “regularly floods and is not a proper final resting place.” Now the church is saying it hopes to clear up its issues with the city at a court hearing in July.
Bonner told investigators he owned the funeral home property and was leasing it to McMillan, but according to tax records, it’s technically owned by the New Ship of Zion, N.D.C. — a non-profit organization Bonner registered with the Alabama Secretary of State in 2010.
Earlier this month, the Mobile County Revenue Commission stripped the organization of its religious exemption status and charged New Zion with two years of back taxes after NBC 15’s reporting showed the non-profit was operating a for-profit business on the property.
While Bonner owns the actual dirt and Heritage Funeral Home building at 953 Broad Street, a relative of McMillan’s appears to be the only registered agent associated with the business. So far, McMillian has not been charged with any crime connected to the cemetery investigation.
However, McMillan has been a convicted sex offender since he was convicted of sodomy and sexual abuse of a female under the age of 14 in 2012, and MCSO’s investigation uncovered that he was violating Alabama’s Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act.
Those violations were related to his failure to notify police of where he was working and the fact the church he pastors was within 2,000 feet of a school and a daycare center. McMillan has since reregistered but is not now barred from pastoring or volunteering at the church.
Bonner also has a history of local arrests dating back to the 1980s. According to Mobile Metro Jail records, he’s previously faced charges for theft, theft of services, theft by deception, indecent exposure, credit card fraud, drug possession and carrying a pistol without a permit.
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