• 9 Investigates: Funeral home shut down after losing bodies

    By: Allison Latos

    Updated:

    STORY HIGHLIGHTS:

    • Rockingham funeral home buries wrong ashes 
    • Two rotting corpses found inside former Wadesoboro funeral home
    • Changes coming to state funeral board inspections after 9 Investigation


    ROCKINGHAM, N.C.
    - Two local funeral home directors face charges for taking money from families but never cremating their loved ones.

    A Rockingham woman still doesn't know where her mother's body is, more than a year after she died.

    Anchor Allison Latos discovered state inspectors are often years behind schedule in checking funeral homes, but the tragic cases are prompting changes.

    Debbie Bibee has only a few pictures and memories of her mother, Betsy.



    She died in May 2013 with plans to be cremated through Russell-Marks funeral home in Rockingham, but after Bibee buried the ashes, a funeral board investigator broke the news.

    "She said, 'The ashes we exhumed is not your mother, it's a man,'" said Bibee.

    Bibee still doesn't know what the funeral home owner, Larry Russell, did with her mother's body.

    DOCUMENT: Notice of hearing Russell-Marks Funeral Home


    "My momma could be in a dumpster," said Bibee.  "My momma could be laying under pine straw. She could be in hole. God only knows where she's at."



    Russell faces fraud charges, but he's not the only local funeral home owner in trouble.

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    Bodies found inside Wadesboro funeral home

    In June, police searched the McLendon Funeral Home in Wadesboro after owner, Mary McLendon-Brown, admitted in court that she left two bodies inside.

    McLendon-Brown is now in prison for taking families' money but never cremating the remains.

    IMAGES: Authorities search funeral home property after rotting corpse found


    State Funeral Board Director, Peter Burke told Eyewitness News both cases are open but Channel 9 learned the problems at McLendon-Brown's business could have been discovered sooner.


     

    Inspectors are supposed to check the state's 751 funeral homes every three years, but at hers, that didn't happen.

    Six years went by.

    CHOPPER 9 VIDEO: Search on at former funeral home after rotting corpse found

    Burke can't explain why, but said the inspector responsible no longer works for the board.

    In 2012, the board shut down McLendon-Brown's business, but an inspector never went there. The bodies went undiscovered for years.

    DOCUMENT: Board of Funerals decision to shut down McLendon Funeral Home

    Eyewitness News asked why no one went to check on the building to make sure there were no lingering issues.

    "That is one of the improvement processes that we are putting in," said Burke.

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    Changes coming to funeral board

    Other changes are coming too after a 2013 state audit pinpointed problems like delayed inspections, no tracking of deficiencies and a lack of follow-ups to ensure violations are corrected.

    The board will hire a fourth inspector and now holds monthly meetings.

    Kelly Alexander, a state representative, runs his family's funeral home in Charlotte.

    He said Channel 9's findings worry him because lawmakers have no authority over the funeral board.



    "If by oversight you mean if the state's boards and commissions report to somebody, by and large they do not," said Alexander.

    Alexander is looking into legislation to create stronger checks.

    Bibee hopes it happens so no other family lives her nightmare.

    "I've laid in the bed at night and wondered where my momma was at, " she said.  "It's not right and it's not fair."

    Neither funeral home director has gone to trial yet on the criminal charges they face.

    The funeral board recommends customers research any funeral home for problems or complaints before doing business.

    Read our past 9 Investigates:

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