PRICHARD, Ala. (WKRG) — Funeral director Joseph Bonner is out of jail. He faces two charges of abuse of a corpse following an investigation into Heritage Memorial Gardens.
Joseph Bonner spoke of his innocence as he walked out of Mobile Metro Jail. He said, “I think it’s more law enforcement. They said that there were no bodies in the casket. They said that there were no caskets there. It was through the lies and motivation of them that we got to the point where the bodies had to be exhumed.”
Bonner pointed his finger at several people, but not himself. He said, “I didn’t even work these services. These individuals that they exhumed yesterday, I didn’t even work their services. I was not the funeral director that was on duty in the cemetery.”
Speaking of his arrest on Wednesday, Bonner said, “I had no reason to believe that I would be arrested because they say a vault wasn’t sealed right, or a grave wasn’t dug too deep.”
Watch the full interview
Bonner said this is all a big misunderstanding. He said, “if you go through any cemetery and find graves, you’re going to probably find water in some caskets.” He said he sold his business, Tri-State Mortuary Inc. in 2017. He says he left Heritage when they found a new funeral director in January of 2018.
He said, “My funeral home used to be housed in the same building and after we did, my church rented the building to Heritage Funeral Home, so people still think that I have a direct connection to the funeral home.”
Reporter Dana Winter asked Bonner who is the funeral director that’s responsible. Bonner said, “I don’t know who they have.”
Bonner’s bond is set at $5,000 for both charges. Bonner is not allowed to contact Heritage Funeral Home or Cemetery. Bonner was released from jail Thursday afternoon.
There are 14 graves at Heritage Memorial Gardens. Of those 14, the sheriff’s office investigated three, finding proof of improper burial in two of those graves. The sheriff’s office found vaults that were improperly sealed, with standing water inside the caskets. They found the caskets were buried under less than two feet of dirt. Industry standards require two feet.
“This is a first for me, in a little over 30 years,” said Captain Paul Burch, with the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office.
The sound of bulldozers interrupts what is supposed to be the peace of the cemetery, as the sheriff’s office digs up three different graves there.
“Families who purchased this package, expected to protect the integrity of what was inside, being the casket and their loved ones remains,” said Captain Burch.
Deputies have been investigating since May after they got several reports from people claiming they paid for caskets but were not sure their loved ones were actually buried in those caskets. Investigators believe Pastor Cedrick McMillan was reusing caskets and running the cemetery illegally.
Deputies are digging the graves of three people buried at the request of their families.
McMillian was arrested and released from jail last month after being arrested for violating SORNA rules. McMillan is a registered sex offender.
“I wanna know is he in that grave, that’s what I want to know,” said Grady Denson.
Grady Denson was there with family watching on as the sheriff’s office unearthed Tito Smith’s grave. Smith was shot and killed in April.
“The mother didn’t pay for him to be buried in this cemetery. She paid for one that was more expensive, and that’s a problem in and of itself,” said Captain Burch.
Deputies discovered his grave, and another had several problems, including water in the caskets.
“There’s less than 8 inches of dirt on the top of them, industry standard is two feet,” said Captain Burch.
Deputies arrested Bonner-Bey at the cemetery as family members looked on. There was a mixture of anger and relief.
“I feel better now,” said Denson.
But, many are still coping with the pain.
“We’ve had several other family members come up to us since we’ve been here, and we’ll look at those on a case by case basis. I know they want answers, and we want to be able to provide them answers it’s not going to be a fast process,” said Captain Burch.
The sheriff’s office will be digging up more graves at the cemetery at a later date. Deputies believe there will be more charges and additional people will be charged as they continue the investigation.
They ask if anyone has concerns over a family member’s burial in Heritage Memorial Gardens, to contact the sheriff’s office.
New Birth Community Church released a statement on their Facebook page writing in part, “our church has made every effort to submit all information possible to show proof of our legal standing as a church cemetery, and records of the internment’s of the fourteen individuals in the cemetery.”