Johnstown Police: Multiple felonies, other charges filed against funeral home director

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Johnstown Police Chief David Gilbo, left, and Fulton County Coroner Margaret Luck discuss the ongoing investigation and charges to be filed against funeral home owner Brian Barnett.

JOHNSTOWN — Brian Barnett will face multiple felony counts and other charges after improperly stored bodies were discovered at the funeral home he owns, according to Police Chief David Gilbo.

Barnett, 35, will be charged with three counts of concealment of a corpse, a class E felony, one count of grand larceny, a class D felony, and two counts of endangering the welfare of a child, a class A misdemeanor, Gilbo announced at a press conference on Friday.

Under Public Health Law, Barnett will additionally be charged with one count of operating a funeral home without a license, four counts of operating as a funeral director without a license and three counts of failing to bury or incinerate within a reasonable amount of time.

The charges have been sent to Johnstown City Court and police are awaiting the issuance of an arrest warrant. The exact timing of arrest and arraignment will depend on when a judge has been identified to review the charges, according to Gilbo, who indicated Barnett’s position within the community may require the case to be heard by a judge from an outside jurisdiction.

Additional charges could be filed against Barnett as the investigation into the improper handling and storage of bodies at the Ehle-Barnett Funeral Home continues, Gilbo said.

A total of four bodies and 18 cremated remains were discovered at the North Williams Street funeral home over the last week after police received a complaint from a family unable to reach Barnett for several weeks after contracting his services to perform a cremation.

Investigators learned that Barnett could not perform funeral services and the Ehle-Barnett Funeral Home could not store or handle remains because his license to practice as a funeral director was suspended in November 2021 and the funeral home was unlicensed since June 2021.

Although the body from the initial complaint was voluntarily turned over to the police and the family by Barnett, a warrant was secured to search the business on Jan. 14 after it was learned that Barnett had received another body in late 2021.

Police knocked on the door and announced themselves for about 15 minutes before entering the funeral home after there was no response from inside, Gilbo said. Barnett eventually appeared from another part of the property and was detained while police executed the warrant.

The search led to the discovery of three human remains not stored in temperature-controlled areas or cared for that were in advanced stages of decomposition. Of the 18 cremated remains found at that time, six were unlabeled.

Barnett was transported to the Johnstown Police Department for questioning following the discovery before being taken to St. Mary’s Healthcare for evaluation, according to Gilbo. The police chief declined to provide the specific reason for the evaluation.

“There were certain concerns and signs that kind of led to the evaluation, but I’m not going to get into that,” Gilbo said.

It was not immediately known if Barnett remains in the care of St. Mary’s or if he has been released, according to Gilbo. He indicated police will attempt to locate Barnett when an arrest warrant has been issued.

Of the three decomposing bodies recovered from the funeral home; one was located in the business in an area surrounded by excess furniture and household items and the other two were located in a garage among a “significant” amount of garbage and other furniture. The bodies located in the garage had been there for a “substantial amount of time.”

Children’s toys were also present around where the decomposing bodies were found in areas children on the property had access to and had to pass by, creating a health risk that led to the endangerment charges, according to Gilbo.

The recovered bodies were relocated to the A.G. Cole Funeral Home and the cremated remains are in the custody of Fulton County Coroner Margaret Luck.

The funeral home did not have a crematorium and used other local facilities for those services. Cremated remains normally have permit numbers on interior containers that will be used to positively identify the deceased before they are turned over to families, Luck said.

Police have further been assisted by A.G. Cole navigating and obtaining paperwork related to the case and receiving advice on the procedures followed by funeral homes.

“Cases like this are kind of unique,” Gilbo said. “They are also not the normal things we see day-to-day.”

City and county officials were never notified that Barnett’s license had been suspended prior to receiving the complaints that led to the discovery, according to Gilbo and Luck. The state Funeral Bureau is responsible for overseeing the operation of funeral homes.

Police are currently investigating 30 complaints in connection with the funeral home, Gilbo said. He noted that some situations involving inadequate services would become civil matters while circumstances involving services that were not rendered following payment would become criminal matters.

“Right now our main concern is to get family members some closure on what we’ve recovered and try to put families at ease if they are worried about what happened to their loved ones,” Gilbo added.

Detectives obtained records from the funeral home during the initial search and are expected to “dig into” the business’ financial records as the investigation continues. Although a possible motive has not been identified, Gilbo said police have been told that Barnett was “short on money.”

“I don’t know if it was a greed thing or a need thing,” Gilbo said.

Police do not believe anyone aside from Barnett had knowledge of the activities at the funeral home. Barnett purchased the business from Daniel Ehle in 2014. Ehle reportedly assisted at the business for a short time following the transition in ownership before moving on.

The ongoing investigation is focused on activities since the funeral home became unlicensed last spring.

“It’s kind of overwhelming right now,” Gilbo said. “I’ve got three detectives and they’ve been flat out since last Monday. We’re trying to get there, it’s just going to be a while.”

It was not immediately known if Barnett has retained an attorney.

Reach Ashley Onyon at [email protected] or @AshleyOnyon on Twitter.

By Ashley Onyon

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