By Marice Richter
FORT WORTH, Texas (Reuters) - The owner of a Fort Worth mortuary where corpses were left to rot stood trial on Wednesday on charges of taking money from clients for funerals and not properly attending to the bodies.
One of the first witnesses called in the trial of Dondre Johnson, 41, who operated Johnson Family Mortuary with his wife, Rachel Hardy-Johnson, 36, said the stench from the facility was so bad he had to cover his face with a wet rag just to step inside.
The pair is charged with felony theft, which carries up to two years in prison, for accepting payments from families of deceased loved ones "in exchange for promising services they did not intend to deliver," according to a statement from the Tarrant County District Attorney’s office.
They are also charged with corpse abuse.
Building landlord Jim Labenz, the first witness to testify, told the court he discovered eight decomposing bodies at the facility in July 2014 and then notified police.
Fort Worth police, who arrested the pair, said the bodies were to be have been cremated but instead left to rot in rooms without air-conditioning.
Johnson’s attorney Alex Kim said in opening statements Johnson ran operations but Hardy-Johnson was the boss, a move seen as deflecting blame.
Labenz testified the mortuary was persistently behind on rent payments so he had the locks changed and had started eviction proceedings when he made the discovery inside, he said.
Labenz also testified that he spent $8,000 on a hazardous materials clean-up.
Johnson denied after his arrest last year that the bodies were mishandled and said the situation was a misunderstanding related to the eviction.
Hardy-Johnson faces the same charges and will be tried separately. She pled guilty to food stamp benefit fraud this year and is serving a 21-month sentence in federal prison.
(Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Eric Walsh)