ROCKINGHAM — A phone call about a strange smell led to a grisly discovery late Tuesday morning.
Police Chief Billy Kelly said Wednesday that officers received a call about an odor coming from behind the building that used to house Legacy Funeral Home in downtown Rockingham, across from city hall and Leath Memorial Library.
During a search, he said officers found what appear to be human remains in a container, though he wouldn’t describe the type of container.
Kelly said the Rockingham Police Department, with the assistance of Detective Mitchell Watson of the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office and the N.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, is working to determine who the remains belong to and how they wound up at that location.
The case is still under investigation and it is too early to determine if the remains are connected to the former funeral home behind which they were found.
David Harrington, Legacy’s former owner, was convicted in September on a single felony count of obtaining property by false pretenses.
According to an arrest warrant, Harrington was paid $23,866.35 by Beta Capital Corp. on a life insurance policy for Alice Leviner Bryant on Feb. 5, three days after the $5,000 bill for her funeral service had been paid in full. That money was deposited into the funeral home’s bank account and never given to the beneficiary.
Another former funeral home owner pleaded guilty in 2015 to a fraud charge after being accused of mishandling remains two years prior.
Larry Wayne Russell entered an Alford plea Aug. 10 to one charge of obtaining property by false pretenses as part of plea arrangement, according to court documents. In turn, six additional fraud charges against Russell were dismissed.
Russell was owner and operator of the Russell-Marks Funeral Home in Rockingham, which the state funeral board shut down in August 2013 after investigating a series of complaints alleging bodies were mishandled and death certificates were not filed.
An arrest warrant for Russell states that Debbie Bibee paid $2,478 to have Betsy Marsh’s remains cremated and that Russell signed a death certificate stating that Argyll Crematory performed the service.
Russell presented Bibee with a temporary container from the crematorium around May 14, 2013, but according to the N.C. Board of Funeral Service, the container was marked with an incorrect date of death for Marsh. Regulators found that Russell never retained Argyll Crematory’s services to cremate Marsh’s body.
Officials said Russell vanished after failing to attend a Board of Funeral Service hearing to suspend his license in August 2013 and had not responded to repeated inquiries from state funeral regulators.
Russell had previously told the Daily Journal that the investigation centered on a dispute over payment. Russell said he halted at least one cremation when family members withheld part of the fee.
Officials said numerous clients filed formal complaints against Russell and his business, alleging cremations that went unperformed, death certificates that were not filed and pre-need contracts that were not honored.
Rockingham police found Virginia Jones’ remains inside the funeral home “surrounded by scented candles with partial decomposition of one hand,” according to the Board of Funeral Service.
Results of a board investigation found that Russell “failed to treat the human remains of Betsy Marsh and Virginia Jones with respect at all times” and that his “conduct constitutes gross immorality in the practice of funeral service.”
Officials told the Daily Journal in September 2013 that Jones’ body should have been cremated.
Reach William R. Toler at 910-817-2675 and follow him on Twitter @William_r_Toler.