As police continue their investigation into a cemetery where improperly buried caskets were exhumed last month, a trickle of litigation from “outraged” family members has continued in civil court.
As has been reported, the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office arrested Funeral director Joseph Lee Bonner and pastor Cedrick McMillan on multiple charges of abuse of a corpse after deputies spent hours exhuming three graves at the Heritage Memorial Gardens cemetery June 26.
The cemetery, located on Cheeseman Avenue in Prichard, is operated by New Birth Community Church, which McMillan formerly pastored.
The church has said that its cemetery, which only has around 14 plots, is used for outreach and the church offers free burial services.
However, according to civil litigation filed in Mobile County, two families say their loved ones were buried in horrible conditions at the church’s cemetery after they paid thousands of dollars for funeral services and, in some cases, despite having asked for them to be buried elsewhere.
The lawsuits, three in total, have named McMillan, Bonner or both as defendants along with Heritage Memorial Gardens, Heritage Funeral Home and New Birth Community Church [NBCC] as defendants. Two of those plaintiffs are family members of murder victims.
Heritage Funeral Home, which is located on Broad Street in Mobile, is located on a piece of property Bonner owns, but the business itself appears to have been run by McMillan. One of his relatives is its only registered agent, according to state business records.
In her complaint filed earlier this summer, Angela Dortch alleged that she paid the funeral home $8,140 in March to cover the funeral and burial services of her daughter, Tamara Dortch. Angela says she paid for her daughter to be buried in Whispering Pines Cemetery but it ultimately took place at NBCC’s Heritage Memorial Gardens.
Her claims mirror concerns that others, including the city of Prichard, have raised about the cemetery’s location — alleging that it is not properly zoned or permitted to operate as a cemetery, is prone to flooding and generally “an unsuitable place to bury humans.”
The most recent lawsuit was filed by the family of Tito Smith, who was shot and killed inside of a sports bar in Mobile in April of 2019. Smith’s mother, Dorthy Mitchell, claims she worked with McMillan and Bonner directly to make arrangements for her son’s funeral.
Mitchell’s lawsuit claims at least $3,800 of that was paid in order to ensure her son was buried in Gethsemane Cemetery in Mobile, but that never happened. Instead, Tito Smith was buried in Heritage Memorial Cemetery. According to the lawsuit, the Alabama Crime Victims Compensation Commission paid for some of that was not paid back.
Grave location wasn’t the only issue, though. In their complaint, Smith’s family members claim his body wasn’t properly embalmed before his burial service and that his casket wasn’t properly sealed and only burred about a foot below the ground.
“As a result of the foregoing, water leaked into Tito’s vault and casket. The areas around the vault washed away, leaving the vault exposed,” the complaint reads. “Because of this and because the casket and vault were not properly sealed, strong odors began to emanate from the burial site for anyone in the vicinity of the cemetery to smell.”
Deputies described similar conditions when they exhumed three gravesites from Heritage Memorial Cemetery June 26. They were able to obtain permits and search warrants for those exhumations because of the reported smell of human decay in the area.
The family of a Prichard woman killed in a domestic dispute in 2017 filed another lawsuit making similar allegations as well. Cindy Darrington’s family is suing Bonner and his affiliated businesses over how she was buried and how her body was handled.
Cindy Darrington’s sister, Alisa Darrington, is the named plaintiff, and in her complaint, Alisa claims Bonner’s behavior before the funeral service as well as the burial itself caused significant emotional distress for her and other family members.
Among other things, she claims the family was shown the wrong body initially and then later shown gruesome pictures of their deceased loved one. Like the other cases, Darrington’s claims the conditions her sister were buried in were substandard.
All three of the lawsuits are seeking damages for neglect and wantonness, though some are also accusing the funeral home and it operators of breach of contract.
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