Owners of defunct Arkansas funeral home where decomposing bodies found barred from operating similar business

The owners of a defunct Jacksonville funeral home where inspectors found improperly stored, decomposing corpses are barred from operating another funeral business in Arkansas and must pay restitution to affected families as part of a settlement agreement with the state attorney general’s office.

Attorney General Leslie Rutledge sued Arkansas Funeral Care, formerly at 2620 W. Main St. in Jacksonville, after the funeral home shut down in January 2015 when an inspector uncovered deplorable conditions there.

A storage cooler was stuffed beyond capacity with bodies waiting to be cremated or embalmed; seven corpses that weren’t embalmed were outside the cooler, some of which showed “obvious decomposition,” according to a report from the state’s Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors.

The Pulaski County coroner and the state Crime Laboratory eventually removed 31 bodies and 22 sets of cremated remains from the funeral home.

The funeral home must pay $3,341.36 in restitution to five families as part of the settlement. The state also imposed $10,000 in civil penalties but said in the agreement that it “recognizes that as a practical matter, [the penalty] is likely an uncollectable debt.” The owners have claimed to be financially ruined since the funeral home went under.

The settlement, which Rutledge’s office announced Tuesday, marks the end of the state’s involvement in the 2½-year saga. The state also charged the funeral home’s owners, Leroy Wood, 88, of Jacksonville and his son Rodney Wood, 63, of Heber Springs, and one funeral director, Edward Snow, 65, of Cabot, with multiple counts of corpse abuse.

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Charges were dropped later against the Woods in exchange for a guilty plea on behalf of the business and a $50,000 fine.

A jury acquitted Snow in June 2016. He remains licensed as a funeral director and embalmer, according to the state funeral board.

“Our loved ones deserve to be treated with the utmost dignity and respect,” Rutledge said in a released statement. “Regrettably, Arkansas Funeral Care ignored this responsibility and egregiously violated the trust of Arkansans.”

Family members complained to Rutledge that Arkansas Funeral Care failed to provide basic paid services like cremation and open-casket viewing. They also reported “nauseating odor” and untimely receipt of death certificates, court documents show.

The home billed itself as a budget funeral home, providing a cheaper, simpler alternative to “traditional” funeral homes.

In the settlement agreement, the Woods denied any wrongdoing noted in Rutledge’s complaint while acknowledging the state would likely succeed at trial.

The Woods’ attorney asserts in the settlement that Leroy Wood was absent because of illness around the time a state inspector arrived. The funeral home experienced a “record level of volume” that week, the settlement reads, and Leroy Wood wasn’t aware that the workers had become overwhelmed.

Once he recognized the problem, he added a second shift for cremations and called around to nearby funeral homes to ask for assistance, the statement said. In an attempt to salvage the unrefrigerated bodies, Wood cut off the heat in the storage and work area and ventilated the outside air to try to lower the inside temperature, the statement said.

“In hindsight, Mr. Wood now sees that they failed to take additional steps that would have been helpful,” the settlement said.

Little Rock attorney John Moore, who represented the Woods in the settlement, referred questions Tuesday to their personal attorney, Brian Woodruff of Jacksonville. Woodruff did not return a phone call requesting comment.

In the past, the Woods have expressed regret and sympathy for the families affected by the company’s “negligence.”

A Natural State Funeral Service purchased the property in 2015 from Arkansas Funeral Care LLC for $186,340, according to real estate records. The new funeral home is in good standing with the funeral board, secretary/treasurer Amy Goode said.

Arkansas Funeral Care also has been sued by 11 families, according to court records.

Sheila McHughes filed the most recent lawsuit without the assistance of an attorney to prevent the statute of limitations from expiring.

Her husband of nine years, Malcolm McHughes died at 67 after a bout with cancer in June 2014. She called him “Mac,” her rock.

They decided the funeral would be simple, nothing too expensive. Arkansas Funeral Care fit the bill; it was nearly half the cost of other funeral homes in the area.

Sheila McHughes informed the funeral director that the family needed to wait five days before the memorial service to give her daughter time to travel from California. She said the funeral director assured her that her husband would look good.

McHughes recalled her shock on the day of the funeral when the casket was opened for a family viewing at an Assembly of God church in Ferndale, the same chapel where the couple was married.

“This isn’t my Mac; this isn’t my husband,” McHughes recalled thinking.

She said his face was green, his nose deformed and his lips were glued crookedly.

McHughes said she still sees that face in some of her dreams as vivid as it was that day inside the casket.

On the funeral home’s website, which now has been taken down, Leroy Wood touted its “very honorable complete funeral plan with affordable prices,” He said it was the recommendation of many ministers, priests, social workers and health care providers.

“Why would you pay more?” he asked on the site.

Metro on 08/09/2017

Print Headline: State bars 2 owners of funeral business; Case is resolved in corpse neglect

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