Fort Worth

First Fort Worth Funeral Home Trial Begins

The felony theft trial of a former mortuary co-owner is now underway.

Dondre Johnson faces two felony charges of theft after eight bodies, seven of them decomposing, were found inside the Johnson Family Mortuary on July 15, 2014.

Tarrant County Assistant District Attorney Sid Mody told jurors in his opening statement that the prosecution would show a pattern of Dondre Johnson and the mortuary taking money, but never delivering the services customers paid for, mostly notable cremations.

Alex Kim, Johnson's attorney, said he could not dispute the bodies that were found inside the mortuary, but said Dondre was not responsible for the thefts as his wife Rachel Hardy owned the mortuary and was the one responsible.

Testimony began Wednesday morning with the property owner and landlord of where the mortuary was located on South Handley Drive near East Rosedale Street in east Fort Worth.

Jim Labenz was on the stand for nearly four hours detailing the day he and two employees went to check on the property after not seeing anyone at the mortuary in two weeks.

Labenz says he had issues with the mortuary since the time they bought the property in February 2015. The first month's rent went to the previous owners and then rent wasn't paid starting in April.

Labenz says he dealt primarily and mostly with Dondre Johnson over several months.

"It kind of sounded like he was my point of contact," he said.

Back rent was never fully paid and the locks on the building were partially changed and eviction proceedings were underway, he said.

At one point, a reality TV producer got involved and paid for some of the rent. The reality show was to feature Dondre and his twin brother Derrick, but was canceled in the wake of the bodies discovery.

Despite giving insight into the financial troubles the mortuary was going through, Labenz most compelling testimony was about the odor he and his colleagues encountered when they got near and then entered the building that day in July.

"We started walking on the sidewalk we could smell foul odor," Labenz told the jury. "I just saw the bodies and it was just overwhelming, we had to come back out."

Kim questioned Labenz about his legal authority to enter the premises that day. One of Kim's questioned was objected to by the prosecutors, saying the defense was badgering the witness and the judge agreed.

Other witnesses included Labenz's former employee Rick Flynt, who testified to the smell and the discovery of gruesome scene of decomposing bodies inside, something Labenz also testified to seeing.

"There was a bucket, at the bottom of the corner right there (referring to a photo), that was collecting fluids that was dripping out of the bag," Labenz said. "And in the bag there was still a bunch of fluid because the weight of it was kind of pulling down. You can see where it was dripping.”

Officer Susan Shore, of the Fort Worth Police crime scene unit, testified about the photos she took the day the bodies were discovered. She also testified about the photos taken a day later when cremated remains were found in boxes by the landlord inside the building.

Emotional Testimony

The most moving testimony happened late in the day, as Desiree Williams took the stand. Williams is the first victim whose loved one was found inside the mortuary, to testify.

Williams' son, Titus, died shortly after birth. She paid the Johnson Family Mortuary, and dealt with Dondre Johnson, who signed the receipt, $300 for cremation services. She got the low price for the services because she had several relatives who had used the mortuary before and Dondre referred to her as being like family.

"I wanted him to be cremated so he could be at home with me," Williams testified about her son, as tears streamed down her face on the stand.

Williams immediately began having issues getting her son's remains after a small service held at the mortuary. She testified that Dondre Johnson told her they'd be ready in a week, but it was nearly two weeks later until her son's father was given the remains.

The name tag on the box had been ripped off and Williams immediately began having concerns. She testified that she spoke to Dondre on the phone.

"'It's not about the label, it's about what's inside this box, is this my son?'" she testified that she told Dondre.

She said at the time she was still grieving and didn't put all the red flags together. But two months later in July 2014, her suspicions were proven accurate when her son's body was found not cremated, but decomposing inside the mortuary.

Testimony for the day concluded with a representative of the Tarrant County Medical Examiner's Office.

Dondre Johnson's wife, Rachel, faces the same charges but is being tried separately. She is currently in federal prison for food stamp fraud.

Dondre's twin brother, Derrick, was in attendance during testimony on Wednesday.

Both Dondre and Rachel face seven misdemeanor charges of abuse of a corpse. Those charges are not being pursued during this trial for Dondre Johnson.

Testimony will continue Thursday morning.

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