A Tarrant County jury found Dondre Johnson, the former owner of a Fort Worth funeral home, guilty of two felony counts of theft Wednesday.
Johnson faced two felony theft charges for taking money for cremation services and then not delivering on them as promised. In many cases, loved ones received someone else's remains.
The jury began deliberating Wednesday morning at 10:38 a.m. after more than a week of testimony. By 11:45 a.m., they had a verdict.
The sentencing phase of the trial started at 1:15 p.m. Wednesday. But during the third witness the proceedings came to a sudden stop as an attorney had a family emergency. The penalty phase will resume on Thursday morning.
Tarrant County Assistant District Attorney Harry White was the first to deliver a closing argument.
“There was no testimony that anyone gave money to Rachel hardy Johnson, all the money went to the defendant,” White told the jury.
He said the services paid by Margaret Francois, Michelle Jones and Eric Jones all totals more than $1,500, which meets the burden of the felony theft charges.
“Mr. Johnson has a pattern of not giving people remains, depriving them of their money, knowing that he is not going to fulfill the service which he has promised the remains, not just cremate these loved ones, these relatives but to treat them with respect,” White told jurors.
White discussed how relatives were given the wrong remains. And told the jury that prosecutors didn’t want to have to show or discuss the decomposing bodies but had to in order to show Johnson depriving the victims of their money and their loved one’s bodies.
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Defense attorney Alex Kim, appointed by the court to represent Dondre Johnson, argued the state failed to meet its burden of proof of theft and a scheme to deprive people of their money. He said much of the state’s evidence was extraneous and didn’t get to the point.
“(It) to distract the true issue if there is theft or not theft,” Kim said to the jury.
He re-iterated that Rachel Hardy, Johnson’s wife, was the owner of the business, was the only name on the business bank accounts, and is therefore responsible for the alleged thefts.
“Who is the boss? ‘My wife is the boss. She is the boss,’” Kim quoted testimony from a Fort Worth Police officer to the jury.
Kim added later: “She is the one who had control, who exerted control over the money. The only concrete evidence they have is that Rachel Hardy controlled the money.”
The DA’s office closed with Sid Mody delivering his closing argument and hammered away at Kim’s argument that there was no hard evidence.
“The hard evidence you saw was Dondre Johnson accepting that money, telling lie after lie to these victims,” Mody told the jury.
Mody said this case is about Mr. Johnson taking money and not delivering on services. And while Rachel Hardy may have been the owner, he is responsible for the actions he took and the role he played.
“He absolutely aided her by … putting those buckets under those bodies, absolutely aided her by giving them the wrong ashes,” Mody said of Johnson.
Perhaps the most compelling argument Mody raised was that this likely had been going on for some time with cremations and this funeral home. That’s a pattern of depriving people and the reason why this is felony theft.
“Mr. Johnson was playing a Ponzi scheme with human remains ,” Mody argued.
Mody also dismissed the defense’s argument that all the blame goes to Rachel Hardy.
“How can Mr. Johnson hide behind Rachel Hardy, when he’s the one accepting the money, he’s the one giving ashes, the one putting buckets under the bodies,” Mody said. “It’s Mr. Johnson’s accepting the money and not doing what he’s supposed to do, that’s what this entire case is about.”
Prior to closing arguments the defense called Willie Marble to the stand. Marble worked at the Johnson Family Mortuary from February to May 2014.
Marble testified that Rachel Hardy was the boss and owner of the funeral home and not Dondre Johnson.
The state then called Dr. Dana Austin, a forensic anthropologist at the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office, who testified that the cremated remains found in the mortuary could not all be identified. Some of the remains did have identifying discs in the remains.