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Live blog: Shawnte Hardin found guilty of 31 charges in Lucas County phony funeral home case

Hardin was charged with crimes related to running an unlicensed funeral business and mishandling bodies.

TOLEDO, Ohio —

Friday, Aug. 5:

Shawnte Hardin was convicted Friday of multiple felony charges related to operating a funeral home without a license.

The verdict came after an 11-day trial before Lucas County Common Pleas Court Judge Michael Goulding, who presided over a bench trial in the case.

Goulding convicted Hardin of 30 of the 38 charges filed in the case, the most serious of which was engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, which is a first-degree felony.

The other charges on which Hardin was convicted were:

  • Three counts of tampering with records 
  • Two counts of telecommunications fraud 
  • One count of operating an unlicensed funeral home 
  • One count of possessing criminal tools 
  • Six counts of abuse of a corpse 
  • Eight counts of representation of a funeral director while unlicensed 
  • Four counts of passing bad checks 
  • Two counts of theft 
  • Three counts of failure to file taxes.

Goulding found Hardin not guilty of two counts of identity fraud and two counts of unauthorized use of a vehicle.

The court dismissed one charge of passing bad checks, one charge of abuse of a corpse, one charge of failure to refrigerate remains, one charge of gross abuse of a corpse, one charge of operating as a funeral director without a license and two charges of failure to file taxes.

Hardin was arrested in October, 2021.

Dozens of cremated remains were found inside an Akron church leaving families to wonder where their loved ones really were.

Prosecutors say this happened in several Ohio counties including Lucas, Cuyahoga, Summit and Franklin.

Thursday, July 28: 

Prosecutors and defense attorneys wrapped up their closing arguments Thursday. The case against accused phony funeral director Shawnte Hardin is now in the hands of Lucas County Common Pleas Court Judge Michael Goulding.

Goulding, who is presiding over the bench trial, is expected to deliver a verdict next week.

Before the end of court Thursday, defense attorney Richard Kerger argued that Hardin was trying to help families, not cheat them. He also claimed the prosecution did not prove a pattern of crimes in this case

"He was doing the best he can with what he had at the time, which is what he always done," Kerger said. "At the end of this I know you'll give careful consideration to it. I think you're going to find that they didn't prove what they said they did."

Prosecutor Drew Wood, however, argued that even if Hardin had good intentions, those good intentions mean nothing in the eyes of the law.

"When an act is a crime, a good motive is not a defense, it's black letter law in the state of Ohio," the prosecutor said. "If I want to honor my wife by giving her a beautiful diamond necklace on our anniversary, it's a good motive but if I break into the jewelry store and steal that necklace it's still a crime, because a good motive is not a defense."

Wood also rejected Kerger's claim that Hardin's motives were pure.

"This was a criminal enterprise, a scheme to defraud vulnerable people in a time of grief," Wood said. "He wasn't doing a service for the poor, he was preying on them."

Wednesday, July 27: 

Shawnte Hardin took the stand again Wednesday morning in his trial for allegedly running a phony funeral home business. 

In his second day of testimony, Hardin's attorney once again asked Hardin questions getting at a central question in the case -- Did Hardin act as a funeral director despite not being licensed to do so?

Hardin claimed that he only acted as an administrator and did not perform the functions of a licensed funeral director. He testified that with the help of a licensed director he set up funeral homes in Michigan, Massachusetts and Texas. 

Hardin also answered questions about his work transporting bodies, explaining that Ohio does not require a person who transports bodies for funeral work to be a licensed funeral director.

Under cross examination from prosecutor Bradford TammaroHardin told the court that prosecution witnesses against him were lying about his business practices.

Funeral director Joseph Scott also testified Wednesday, telling the court that while it is true, as Hardin claims, that he hired Hardin to work for him, the arrangement lasted only a matter of hours. Since then, however, Scott said Hardin has claimed he worked at Scott's funeral business for months or even years and has printed up flyers implying that the two were in business together.

Tuesday, July 26:

The bench trial for Shawnte Hardin resumed in Judge Michael Goulding's Lucas County Common Pleas courtroom Tuesday afternoon.

Hardin is accused of running a phony funeral home business and acting as a funeral director despite not being licensed.

The defense began its case Tuesday and Hardin himself took the stand, testifying that he never told people he was a funeral director or abused a corpse.

Under direct questioning from his own attorney, Hardin described for Judge Goulding how he got started working in a funeral home as a 12-year-old and how he went on to study mortuary science briefly in Pittsburgh. Hardin left school without finishing, he testified.

Hardin testified that as a pastor he encountered families seeking low-cost funeral services, so he would refer them to inexpensive funeral service providers. He told the court that he referred to himself as a "funeral guide," not a funeral director.

Wednesday, July 20:

Prosecutors rested their case against Shawnte Hardin in Lucas County Common Pleas Court Wednesday morning. 

The defense is expected to make its case beginning Tuesday, July 26 in Judge Michael Goulding's court room.

Tuesday, July 19:

On Tuesday, prosecutors began to wrap up their case against Shawnte Hardin, who is accused of running a phony funeral home business.

Ohio Bureau of Investigations Special Agent Arvin Clar presented evidence found in an Akron church. Though the cremated remains of 85 people found in the church are not directly linked to the charges Hardin is facing in Lucas County Common Pleas Court, prosecutors argued they are relevant because Hardin left the cremated remains in Akron during the same time frame as the crimes is accused of committing in this case.

The remains were discovered when authorities executed a search warrant at the church where Hardin is a pastor. Hardin's attorney argued the remains belonged to a former Toledo funeral director, Robert Tate, who has passed away.

Since they were discovered in Akron, the remains of more than 50 people have been returned to families. Authorities have secured the remains of 30 in a cemetery facility, hoping to return them to families.

Monday, July 18:

The trial of accused phony funeral director Shawnte Hardin has begun in Lucas County Common Pleas Court Monday morning with testimony from workers in the funeral industry who had dealings with Hardin.

A funeral director who works at a Muslim cemetery in Columbus, testified that his business handled bodies received from Hardin. He told the court he was not aware that the people whose remains he was handling were Christian and that handling Christians in such a facility would be inappropriate.

The man also testified that Hardin told him he had converted to Islam, though Musa later learned that Hardin is a practicing Baptist preacher. The Columbus funeral director also testified that he hired a hearse to transport bodies he received from Hardin because otherwise they would be transported in a moving van provided by Hardin, which also was inappropriate.

Also Monday, Arvin Clar, a special agent with the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigations, testified about his investigation of Hardin's business practices. 

Clar told Judge Michael Goulding that investigators searched Hardin's home as well as the warehouse where Hardin had previously worked and stored bodies. While a cadaver dog "hit" on a sink in the warehouse space, officials did not find any evidence of blood there. They believe the sink was replaced after Hardin left and another tenant rented out the space, Clar said.

Investigators did find the caskets they were looking for in the basement of Hardin's house, Clar testified. Some of these were stained, he said.

Friday, July 15:

The first week of the trial of Shawnte Hardin, who is accused of running a phony funeral home business, wrapped up Friday.

On the stand Friday morning, two women testified that Hardin represented himself as a funeral director, despite the fact he is not licensed. 

Barbara Koonce testified she went to Hardin when her brother died in 2018, looking for funeral and cremation services. She said Hardin told her he was a licensed funeral director, but signed his name on documents as “agent only.” She says things became “hostile” when working with Hardin.

Charlotte Weatherspoon also hired Hardin on recommendations from a friend when her 35 year old son Charles died. She said he introduced himself to her as a funeral home director and pastor

During Friday morning's court session, both the prosecution and defense referred to documents showing that Hardin had signed his name on paperwork meant for a funeral director, but then wrote down "agent only."

Thursday, July 14:

In its fourth day, the trial of accused phony funeral director Shawnte Hardin began Thursday with testimony from other funeral directors who had business dealings with Hardin.

Calvin Sheffield, a funeral director in Pittsburgh, testified that Hardin would bring bodies to his Pennsylvania funeral home Pennsylvania. He told the court that he had believed Hardin was licensed to work as a funeral director in Ohio, though that is not true.

Other funeral directors, including one from Michigan, testified about their professional interactions with Hardin, including instances when he picked up bodies with a van.

A cemetery worker testified that Hardin did not pay for cemetery services. Hardin would write back checks or provide credit card numbers that did not work. The man said that when cemetery officials attempted to contact Hardin again, they could never reach him.

Wednesday, July 13:

Court resumed Wednesday in the trial of Shawnte Hardin with testimony from the family members of people whose bodies Hardin handled.

The family members testified that Hardin misrepresented himself as a funeral director despite having no license to work as a funeral director.

Witnesses told the court that Hardin asked for money for work that had been delayed for months. Some testified that they were upset after finding out that Hardin had shipped the bodies of their loved ones out of state without them knowing.

Caring Stewart testified that Hardin mishandled her brother's remains, asking her and her sister to meet him at a Columbus gas station to see their brother's casket, which he had in the back of a van. The sisters, who are Christian, were also upset, they testified, when Hardin took their brother's body to a mosque and also when they discovered their brother's body was stored in a room that was not refrigerated.

Tuesday, July 12:

The second day of Shawnte Hardin's trial started late Tuesday when Hardin was late arriving. Judge Michael Goulding, who is presiding over the bench trial without a jury, chided Hardin to be on time for future proceedings.

Witnesses included current and former Lucas County Coroner's Office employees, along with local funeral directors, who testified about their experiences dealing with Hardin.

Lucas County Coroner Diane Scala-Barnett testified about one body that her office had released to Hardin only to have the remains returned to the coroner's office. The coroner said her office learned that Hardin's business was not an actual funeral home and the body had not been properly refrigerated.

“Bodies will decompose very rapidly once they’ve been opened during an autopsy and that's why I would have no concern whatsoever about this if he was embalmed, but he wasn’t, he was newly autopsied and the bag was breached,” Dr. Scala Barnett testified.

Witnesses also included family members of Hardin's clients who testified they found out their loved ones' bodies were stored in strange places, such as kitchens, and that they had difficulty getting death certificates.

Other current and former Lucas County Coroner's Office employees, along with local funeral directors, testified about their experiences dealing with Hardin.

One witness who worked for a body transport company testified he recommended that a body Hardin was handling be cremated because it was in poor condition thanks to decomposition.

One coroner's office employee testified that the local funeral business community thought Hardin was "sketchy." Hardin's defense attorney alleged that people in the business were out to get his client because Hardin was an outsider.

Monday, July 11:

The trial for Shawnte Hardin, the man accused of running an illegal funeral home business, has begun in Lucas County Common Pleas Court Monday.

In opening arguments, the Prosecutor Bradford Tammaro said the heart of his case is that Hardin did not offer dignity or respect to the people whose bodies he allegedly mistreated. 

Hardin's attorney, Rick Kerger, argued in his opening statement that the defendant did try to help families have a proper funeral for a low cost. Kerger said that contrary to the state's accusations, his client never claimed to be a licensed funeral director.

After opening arguments, Columbus Police Officer Anthony Johnson testified about discovering two bodies inside a former beauty salon that Hardin was using to do his work.

Johnson testified that Hardin told him he had, at one time, been in the funeral business. 

When Johnson asked Hardin why he no longer was in the funeral business, Hardin told the officer he knew he was not allowed to be in the funeral business without a license, Johnson testified.

Seven witnesses took the stand Monday before the court recessed for the day. 

Court is expected to resume Tuesday morning with more prosecution witnesses.

   

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