CLEVELAND (AP) — Ohio investigators have found the cremated remains of 89 people stored in boxes and bags at an abandoned church in Akron, authorities said.
The remains were seized at Greater Faith Missionary Baptist Church on Tuesday by investigators from the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, attorney general spokesperson Steve Irwin said Thursday.
The church is owned by Shawnte Hardin, 41, who faces 44 counts including racketeering, tampering with records, identity fraud and abuse of a corpse in Lucas County, over 100 miles from Akron.
Some of the charges are for alleged criminal violations in Franklin, Summit and Cuyahoga counties, where authorities say Hardin acted as an unlicensed funeral director. The cases were consolidated in Toledo. Hardin has pleaded not guilty.
Hardin's attorney, Richard Kerger, said Thursday that a former funeral director named Robert Tate Jr. asked Hardin in 2017 to store the ashes of people whose families had not claimed them.
"There was no compensation for him," Kerger said of Hardin. "He was just doing a service for someone who needed it."
Tate pleaded no contest to one felony and three misdemeanor charges in November 2015 after authorities board found 11 bodies in various states of decay at his Toledo funeral home. He was sentenced to a week in jail and probation. He died in December at age 65.
The remains in Akron were initially discovered Sunday by a woman who told a state investigator she was an "urban explorer" and had entered an open door of an abandoned church. She contacted the Ohio State Bureau of Embalmers and Funeral Directors, triggering the state investigation.
The woman said some of the ashes dated to 2010, according to a search warrant affidavit written by state investigative agent Arvin Clar.
Kerger disputed that the church was abandoned. He said Hardin has not been able to check on the building since being placed on home detention at his mother's home in Columbus while awaiting trial.
Hardin was initially indicted on 37 counts in September after being accused of running an unlicensed funeral operation. The investigation began that same month after someone called 911 and reported seeing a corpse being moved from a van into a building.
State agents subsequently removed two bodies from the building.
Hardin told a Columbus television station at the time he was not acting as a funeral director but instead offered low cost services for transporting and washing dead bodies.
He was charged with seven additional counts, including abuse of a corpse in December.
According to his attorney, state law does not require a funeral director's license to bury people.
"There's nothing wrong with helping people dispose the remains of their loved ones," Kerger said.