A tip led the NBC 10 Investigators to an unlicensed funeral home in Chester, Pennsylvania. When our cameras captured bodies prepped for burial it led to questions [of oversight and enforcement] for those watching Pennsylvania’s funeral industry.
We met Leychawne Johns inside an unlicensed funeral home. He was standing over a body in a casket. Another corpse lay in a back room. According to state records Leychawne Johns is a licensed funeral trainee, meaning he can only practice under the supervision of a licensed funeral director.
“There are two bodies in the process of being prepared for viewing,” Deputy Chester Police Commissioner Otis Blair said.
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Police arrived when the building’s owner, licensed funeral director Louis Hunt, called them. Hunt rents an upstairs apartment to Johns.
“For months now I’ve been trying to let the board know that there’s unlicensed activity going on in the building,” Hunt said.
“I’m calling my attorney,” Johns said when asked about his license status.
Johns did not provide his attorney’s name or contact number.
It is not the first time recently we’ve seen unlicensed funeral activity in a Pennsylvania funeral home.
Last summer, we saw it twice in one week in Philadelphia.
First police discovered decomposing bodies in Blair Hawkins’ unlicensed funeral home. Days later they found three decomposing in an unrefrigerated Philadelphia garage. State records show Janet Powell-Dailey ran an unlicensed funeral home for three years. Both Powell-Daily and Hawkins were charged with abuse of a corpse and are awaiting trial. Hawkins said he won’t talk to us until his trial ends. Powell-Dailey and her lawyer haven’t returned our calls for comment.
“You know what, this is a tough industry,” former state funeral board chairman Gregory Burrell said.
Burrell has been a member of the state funeral board for six years. As chairman he was in charge of overseeing the industry. When the NBC10 Investigators went to Harrisburg to see how the board enforces unlicensed activity – we watched them remove Burrell as chairman.
State records show he allowed his West Philadelphia funeral home’s license to lapse for four days in February.
“I think it’s a technicality because the license was gone for three days and I mean the checks and the applications were in the mail to get there on time so we would not be late,” Burrell said.
According to the Department of State, Burrell ran the Terry Funeral Home in West Philadelphia without a license from February 1, 2016 to February 5, 2016. The Terry Funeral Home’s website shows two funerals performed during that time.
Burrell said he thought the license was active.
“It is just baffling to me because I know we wrote the checks way in advance. Way in advance,” he said.
The funeral board can issue fines and revoke licenses but whether it’s the board chairman or someone, such as Leychawen Johns, our investigation found the state powerless to stop the unlicensed from performing funerals.
“We do not have the statutory authority to actually stop a person from practicing,” Deputy Secretary Peter Speaks said.
Speaks is in charge of Pennsylvania’s professional licensing.
Court records show the state regulator tried to shut down Powell’s funeral home last fall in Philadelphia but couldn’t. State law requires “proof of immediate and irreparable harm” to the living.
“We can be effective to the extent that we are bringing attention to the fact that they are practicing without a license,” Speaks said.