Ex-Columbia funeral home director sentenced to house arrest for giving families wrong ashes

By Bill Draper, AP
Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Mo. funeral home director gets house arrest

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A Missouri funeral director who deliberately gave the wrong ashes to grieving families and discarded decaying corpses in his basement deserves a harsher punishment than house arrest and probation, angry victims said Tuesday.

Patricia Johnson said she sometimes wakes up sweating in the middle of the night, haunted by nightmares of the day in late 2008 when she stood in a Columbia cemetery for what seemed like hours in the numbing cold, waiting for proof that the person inside a casket was her sister.

Johnson believes that Harold Warren Sr., the man responsible for her anguish, got off lightly.

A Boone County circuit judge sentenced Warren on Monday to 60 days under house arrest and five years of probation. The court ordered him to pay restitution and run an apology in the local newspaper. And the 77-year-old was banned from owning or operating a funeral home.

“It’s too late for a public apology,” Johnson told The Associated Press. “I don’t feel like there’s no excuse in this world for what he’s done.”

State officials ordered the Warren Funeral Chapel in Columbia to close in July 2008 after a woman’s body was found stored in an electrical room for 10 months without being embalmed or refrigerated. Investigators later found several more rotting bodies and a garbage bag filled with organs.

Johnson, 45, said her family and Warren’s have known each other since long before he ran the funeral home. Warren was friends with her grandparents in the 1970s when he became Columbia’s first black city councilman — a title that she believes kept him out of jail.

“It’s not a black or white thing, it’s a political thing,” she said. “It’s all about special favors.”

Johnson and her 56-year-old aunt, Kathy Johnson, visited Warren’s funeral home in July 2008 on separate missions: Patricia was there for an uncle’s burial, while Kathy was trying to pin down the location of her mother’s grave.

They both noticed a foul odor.

Kathy Johnson said she had been told three different places where her mother was buried at Rockbridge Cemetery, and that Warren and the cemetery owner would not give her a straight answer. After the bodies were discovered in the funeral home, she decided to have her mother dug up so she would know for sure that she had been interred.

When Kathy Johnson had her mother exhumed in February 2009, she discovered the casket and liner were not what she had paid for.

Patricia Johnson’s sister was exhumed Nov. 18, 2008, one year after she was buried. Johnson said the sight of the casket wasn’t good enough — she needed to see her sister’s body.

“It was hard enough burying my sister,” Johnson said. “Then I had to dig her back up, open the casket and look at her.”

The Johnsons moved both bodies from Rockbridge to a different cemetery in Columbia that had donated two plots.

The women cannot understand why groups including the NAACP supported Warren through his trial when his actions had caused so much pain.

“He did something wrong, and we know he did something wrong. It doesn’t matter what color you are. But they backed him anyway,” Kathy Johnson said.

Mary Ratliff, president of the Missouri chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, acknowledged that Warren had made some mistakes. She said he tried to help everyone, even if they didn’t have any money to pay for a funeral.

“I never knew him to tell anyone no,” Ratliff said.

“One lady told me she lost two children, and there’s no way she could have buried them had he not been the kind of person he was,” she said.

It was his generosity over the years, not his reputation as a black community leader, that led to a sentence that didn’t include jail time, Ratliff said.

“I don’t think it’s political, I think it’s human,” she said. “People recognize that this person, something bad happened, but he also is a very good, decent, giving person who has contributed so much to Columbia and to the African American community.”

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