Following a raid on multiple properties, deputies are searching for a man accused of illegally operating a cemetery in Prichard who police say may have been selling used caskets.
According to Mobile County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Paul Burch, deputies received information from a local television station about three weeks ago regarding concerns raised by several families over loved ones buried in Heritage Memorial Garden Cemetery in Prichard.
The facility had already been flagged and temporarily shut down earlier this year and there was growing frustration among some who weren’t able to relocate buried family members and a dreadful fear among others that their loved ones might not be buried where they were told.
Police say the cemetery, located at the intersection of Cheeseman Street and Owens Avenue, is operated by Cedric McMillian and Joseph (JoJo) Bonner. While investigating its operations, investigators were led to New Ship Ministries Church on Friday.
A search warrant was executed at the location on May 17 and Burch said the church appeared to be providing the services of a funeral home without a license to operate such a facility. He said police found several caskets, foul odors and a room that seemed to be set up for an embalming.
“There were also several caskets, one in particular, that appeared to have been in the ground before. There was what appeared to be dirt on it, there was mildew inside and parts of it appeared to be scratched up,” Burch said. “As part of that search warrant, a cadaver dog actually alerted on one of the caskets, which tells us there was some kind of decomposition there.”
So far, MCSO hasn’t outright accused anyone of digging up caskets and trying to repurpose them. Bonner has also denied those allegations in subsequent interviews with Fox 10 and NBC 15.
Either way, police say Bonner is renting New Ship Ministries Church for his ministry under a contract that “clearly states it’s not to be ‘used as a funeral home.’” now, investigators are looking into Bonner’s relationship with McMillian, who owns Heritage Funeral Home in Mobile.
On Tuesday, MCSO detectives raided Heritage Funeral Home on Broad Street as well as a home McMillan owns at 6116 Porters Ave. Police are searching for McMillan though it doesn’t appear he’s wanted for charges related to the operation of Heritage Memorial Garden, yet.
Instead, he currently has three active felony warrants for violating the Alabama Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA). McMillan was convicted in 2012 of sodomy and sexual abuse against a female under the age of 14.
According to Burch, those violations allegedly occurred because of how close McMillan’s newest church, New Birth Community Church, is to an existing elementary school. It’s unclear if he’ll face additional charges related to MCSO’s investigation at this point.
However, Burch did say he believes the investigation is still ongoing. While the case involves multiple businesses, he said many of those overlap.
“This investigation has gone on for about three weeks but I think it’s going to continue to be a lengthy process from here,” Burch said. “This investigation is far from over.”
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