GRAPHIC: Family suing after finding deceased mother ‘a mess’ in casket

Family says mother appears to have been chewed on by animal, claims there was blood spot in coffin
Updated: Sep. 27, 2018 at 11:20 AM EDT
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ADAMS COUNTY, OH (FOX19) - Did an animal eat part of a woman’s ear and do other damage to her body while under a funeral home’s care? Her family says they discovered part of her ear and toe missing when they saw her in the casket -- they also claim there were burn marks up and down the left side of her body.

The family is now suing.

Donna Pence was given two weeks to live in July.

"It was a shocker for all of us," said her son, Tommy Clark-Harp.

His mother’s lung cancer had spread quickly, so she came to live with him and his husband Michael, and their daughter Jordan at their home.

“She came home on a Monday and passed away that following Sunday,” he said.

His mother died July 15. It all happened so suddenly, they didn’t have the money to bury her right away, so their church and family all pulled together to help them with the down payment for the burial expenses -- about half of what was owed. They signed a contract to make payments toward the balance.

They contracted with the Lafferty Funeral Home in West Union, for approximately $4,400, they told FOX19. That amount would cover the embalming, the funeral, and graveside service.

“We find out later that he had actually sent my mom on out to Mt. Orab, Ohio to a place to have her embalmed there,” said Clark-Harp.

According to the police report they filed with the Adams County Sheriff’s Office, it was the Megie Funeral Home, a third party, that was sub-contracted to embalm Pence’s body. Clark-Harp said she left the house on July 15 and returned to Lafferty’s Funeral Home on July 26.

Clark-Harp says there was an agreement in place with the funeral home to get his deceased mother prepared and dressed with make-up and all.

In screen-captured text messages between the family and funeral home owner John Lafferty, Lafferty appears to respond to Pence’s sisters: “That is good!”

Lafferty later denied agreeing to this. Police reports say he had no idea they wanted to do this.

No one was prepared for what Pence wound up looking like, according to the family.

“My aunt called me, hysterical, she was crying so hard,” said Clark-Harp. “John Lafferty the owner meets me at the door, he says your aunt’s a little distraught, did you all have a dog or a cat at home that might have nibbled at your mother’s toe or ear? I said, ‘Oh Lord no! Mother was completely intact! Why?’”

The answer: the entire lower part of Pence’s left ear was gone. One family member said it looked like something chewed it off.

“I honestly think it might have been a rat,” said Clark-Harp. “They took my mother’s beautiful black wig and they put it over her ear. She also had a bite mark on the neck. It reminded me of when I was a child, I had a gerbil, and it bit me, and that’s the same type of bite that was there and the ear and then the toe.”

On her pinky toe, he said, the skin was missing all the way to the bone.

“She was a mess,” he said, tearing up. “The thought of something just gnawing at her body.”

The family also says there were mysterious burn marks up and down the left side of her body.

“That’s just how they presented her to us,” said Clark-Harp. “I just hit the floor. I could not believe my eyes.”

Pence’s body was in what amounts to a plastic pair of coveralls to stop her seeping body from leaking into the casket.

“She was sweating, I mean she was just seeping,” said Clark-Harp, who believes his mother was not properly embalmed. “There was a blood spot in the coffin, which I don’t understand, if a person’s embalmed, why would there be blood?”

And the family claims rigor mortis had not even set in after nearly two weeks.

“Mom was so flexible,” said Clark-Harp. “And this might sound a bit morbid, but she was so flexible, I was able to lean down and take my mother’s arm and easily, just kind of put it on my head and I said a prayer with her.”

According to the police report, Chrissa Shelly, the woman who did the embalming at the Mt. Orab facility, told them she would tug periodically on Pence’s ear to make sure the embalming fluid was getting all the way in, but given her weakened state from chemotherapy, pulled the lobe right off, a theory Clark-Harp refuses to believe.

Clark-Harp says Lafferty told him he was sorry and that he was going to knock the balance off so that there would be no balance due. He said Lafferty also offered him a tombstone of his choice for 50 percent off, as well as a dinner so they could talk it all out.

“I want justice for my mother," said Clark-Harp. “You have a heart and you have love and compassion for someone, you just don’t treat them like garbage.”

Clark-Harp said that after a report was filed with the sheriff, Lafferty’s did a beautiful job of “fixing” his mother before the viewing, and for that he is grateful.

But the family says Lafferty refuses to return their calls. FOX19 tried multiple times to reach him without any success on his cell and business numbers.

Tom Megie, with the third-party facility, told FOX19 he would speak with his attorney and call us back. FOX19 never received that call back. He did, however, say during the original conversation that a rat had not eaten Pence’s ear while her body was at his facility. Later in that conversation, when asked the same question, he said, like any business, there are traps for vermin and such, just in case, though he denied that a rat could have bitten Pence. Representatives with the third-party facility also said the marks that looked like burns were the result of natural skin decay.

The State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors is now looking into the case. The family’s attorney, Mike Allen said what happened to the family is awful, and they are pursuing legal action.

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