Two men at the center of a sprawling investigation into an alleged illegal funeral operation in Prichard were arrested last week after investigators dug up what they believe to be improperly buried caskets and corpses at a cemetery linked to them.
Funeral director Joseph Lee Bonner was arrested on two counts of abuse of a corpse after deputies from the Mobile County Sheriff’s office (MCSO) spent hours exhuming three graves at the Heritage Memorial Gardens cemetery following a four-month investigation.
Two days later, Cedrick McMillan — a local pastor and convicted sex offender who formerly operated a funeral home on property Bonner owns — was booked on three similar charges.
“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 MCSO investigator said. “The families that purchased this particular package expected the vaults to be sealed to protect the integrity of their loved ones’ remains.”
Deputies obtained a search warrant to move forward with the exhumations after identifying graves that appeared to be caved in and were emitting a foul odor. Deputies dug out vaults and caskets with standing water in them, even though police say families paid for proper services.
Less than 8 inches of dirt covered some of the vaults, which Burch said was much less than the funeral industry’s standard of about 2 feet. There was evidence some bodies may have not been fully or properly embalmed, leading to decomposition, police say.
“In these cases there was a very minimal amount [of embalming fluid] 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 other gravesites where investigators believe no burial ever happened at all.
“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 last week, and Burch told Lagniappe 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 ones to another location in the future.”
At least one woman has already filed a civil lawsuit over the burial of her daughter.
As part of the investigation, deputies have been untangling a web of business relationships between Bonner and McMillan, whose family owns and operates the now-closed Heritage Funeral Home in Mobile. McMillan is also a pastor at New Birth Community Church, which runs the cemetery in Prichard as part of its “outreach” ministry.
Bonner owns the funeral home through a separate religious organization he started, but the business is linked to McMillan and his family. Local tax assessors recently moved to revoke Bonner’s organization’s religious exemption, which has since been charged with back taxes.
McMillan, who has been a registered sex offender since 2012 due to an unrelated conviction, was released from Mobile Metro Jail on bond over the weekend. He’s currently prohibited from preaching at his church, and as part of his bond, cannot be in contact with the funeral home, the cemetery or any of the victims’ families. Bonner was released on a $5,000 bond on June 27.
At this point it’s still unclear why one suspect was charged with three counts of corpse abuse and the other is only facing two.
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