SENATE BILL 524 PASSES
AUSTIN – Once Texas Gov. Greg Abbott graces Senate Bill 524 with the stroke of a pen, the crime of “abuse of a corpse” will officially become a state jail felony.
During a third and final reading of this bill – taken during the House of Representatives session on Sunday – the measure passed 142 to 0.
This is a huge victory and the end of a long journey for a former Burleson resident, her daughter, and a group of Dallas-Fort Worth area women.
During much testimony to different political bodies, members of this group have recalled the anguish of being tricked into paying for mortuary services that were never provided. The end result of this trickery was that their loved ones’ bodies were lost, possibly forever.
The effort to strengthen Texas law and prevent this from happening to anyone else was spearheaded by Mary Hurst, formerly of Burleson, and her daughter, Lisa Lopez of Crowley.
Lopez said few people understand how tedious and emotional this journey has been for her and her mother, as well as their “band of sisters” – Felicia Braxton of Fort Worth, Kia Davis of Dallas, and Michelle Jones-McEllhanon of Arlington.
All suffered the loss of a loved one’s body as the result of funeral industry chicanery.
“Who would have thought a few ordinary women brought together by heinous acts of those in the funeral industry would have led to the passing of a bill?” Lopez said in a Facebook post. “It was not easy, but we shared a common passion and a need to allow justice to prevail for future families and closure for others. We saw injustice and knew something had to be done. If a few ordinary women could make such an impact, imagine how great the world would be if more people would rise to the occasion and be the change.”
Mary Hurst agreed wholeheartedly.
“We all have to get on our knees and thank God,” Hurst wrote.
Previously, abuse of a corpse was a state misdemeanor mandating up to six months in jail and a maximum $4,000 fine.
Once it is signed by the governor, this newly-passed law will make the minimum penalty two years in state jail and up to $10,000 in fines for each count.
Hurst and Lopez’s nightmare began in 2005. They learned the body of Hurst’s late father was not in its resting place as they had always been assured.
The mother and daughter spent nearly four years and $50,000 searching for the remains of Hurst’s late father at the cemetery in Libertyville, Illinois, where they thought he had been buried.
They dug up 107 graves and were in and out of court multiple times. Along the way, the pair found other bodies that had been buried incorrectly – or not at all.
Together, Hurst and Lopez ended up writing a book about their experience. “Digging For Daddy,” chronicles that devastating and unsuccessful quest to move Hurst’s father’s remains from Illinois to Mansfield.
“Until you have gone through or seen the horror we have, it may be hard to grasp why we have fought so hard for this bill,” Lopez stated this week.
Watching Senate Bill 524 take shape has been an exhausting process for Lopez and her mother.
Sunday was no different. Mother and daughter traveled to Austin and entered the Capitol around 9:30 a.m. They took their seats in the chamber galley at 1:30 p.m. and sat there until about 10:30 p.m. when SB524 came up for a second reading.
“In the nine hours we sat in those seats we had time to reflect on what got us to this point,” Lopez said.
Lopez said special thanks should go to Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, for sponsoring the bill, and to State Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, for the dedication he gave to SB524. Thanks also go to State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, for sponsoring the bill and getting it on the calendar, and to Vincent Giardino, assistant criminal district attorney legislative liaison for Tarrant Count, ”for practically holding our hand through this process.”
“Today, May 22, 2017, we can breathe because starting Sept. 1, those who choose to violate the remains of our loved ones will be facing felony charges, state jail time and huge fines,” Lopez said. “Today we can officially say, ‘We did it!’ ”
Braxton’s mother, Aundrea Jones, died in 2014. She and her family, like many others, used the mortuary services of Dondre Johnson and the Johnson Family Mortuary. Dondre Johnson was convicted of theft and abuse of a corpse after eight decomposing bodies were pulled from that mortuary.
Braxton received cremated remains she believed belonged to her mother. However, they were actually the remains of a Ms. Opal Anderson. Braxton returned the remains. In exchange, she received an empty box with her mother’s name and the number 1510272.
But nothing else. No sign of her mother’s remains. For the longest time.
That changed about a week ago, when Braxton’s finally received her mother’s ashes.
Through both traditional and social media, this story attracted the attention of a California woman who had extra ashes after having her husband cremated. One thing led to another and the ashes turned out to be those of Braxton’s mother. The California woman was more than happy to make sure the ashes made their way back to Braxton.
In a Facebook post, Braxton was beside herself with joy at the passage of the bill, and very grateful to Hurst and Lopez for being there to lean on along the way.
“How do I say thank you?” Braxton asked. “For seeing my pain. For picking me up from a very dark place in my life and helping me to face an unknown journey? ... I'm forever grateful. You are Heaven sent ... my family and Texas say ... Thank You! Well done.”