An Austin family says they were scammed by a man posing as a funeral home director who misrepresented who he was and also botched the services for a deceased infant relative.
The family of Messiah Steven Wynn, who died on Jan. 21 at only 2 months old, says a relative recommended LaVell Johnson, who claims to be the owner of Johnson Funeral Home at 5838 W. Division, to conduct the funeral service and burial.
Sharmine Sykes, the infant’s aunt, recalled that Johnson told the family to meet him at his place of business on Jan. 22 to discuss the services. The infant’s grandmother, Frederica Williams, initially talked with Johnson. But when the family went to the funeral home, Johnson wasn’t there. According to Sykes, they called him on his cell phone and he told them to meet him at Fountain Jordan Shepard Funeral Home, located on 418 S. Cicero.
But Sykes said what Johnson told the family about himself and Messiah’s funeral wasn’t adding up. She went to the funeral home on Division and asked an employee there if Johnson was the owner, and she was told that he was not and hadn’t worked there anymore.
Johnson spoke with Austin Weekly News by phone on Tuesday. Asked three times if he was indeed the owner of the funeral home, he said yes. Johnson, 33, added that he’s been in the funeral business for 10 years and has owned Johnson Funeral Home, which he claimed to have founded, for five years. He added that he also has an office at Jordan Shepard. When asked several times why he had an office there if he owned his own funeral home, Johnson said he uses the office to meet with families.
Johnson Funeral Home, however, is actually owned by Mary Smith, who also owns Smith and Thomas Funeral Home at 5708 W. Madison. Smith, whom the Austin Weekly News also spoke with on Tuesday, said she bought Johnson Funeral Home last year. She said she doesn’t personally know LaVell Johnson and wouldn’t be able to recognize him if she saw him. Smith has heard of him and said he did work at Johnson Funeral Home before she bought the business. Smith said he doesn’t have a license and that he calls his business Johnson Funeral Service. Smith recalled that the only work she was aware he did for Johnson Funeral Home was finding limousines for funerals.
“He had a hookup where if a family needed a limousine, he would call someone he knew. That’s all I knew about him,” she said.
Smith added that “a bunch of people are running around the West Side claiming to have licenses to do funerals but don’t.”
Johnson told the Weekly that he is not a licensed funeral director and has never had such a license, and he was adamant that the title of funeral director not be associated with him.
Austin Weekly News contacted a spokesperson with the Illinois Department of Professional Financing and Regulations, which overseas the licenses for such professions as funeral directors. Spokesperson Susan Hofer said funeral directors must be licensed in the state. She added an owner of a funeral home does not have to be licensed but must have a licensed funeral director on staff to conduct services.
“Ours is a service to ensure that family members are protected and funeral directors are held accountable,” she said.
LaVell Johnson’s name doesn’t appear on the department’s Web site database of licensed funeral directors or embalmers.
But according to Sykes, Johnson was the only person her family dealt with concerning Messiah’s funeral services. They funeral was also going to be paid for through public aid, which Sykes said Johnson was going to file with the state. Sykes said they never gave him any money and Johnson told the Weekly that the family has the paperwork that needed to be file with the Department of Human Services. Sykes said the family gave the child’s body to Johnson to have it embalmed, leading to another complaint and concern of the family.
Sykes said she asked Johnson when the child was embalmed. Monday, Jan. 25 was the day she said Johnson gave her. But when asked by the Weekly, Johnson said he didn’t remember what day the child was embalmed, and added that he was not going to dispute whatever day the family gave. Sykes said a couple of days went by without hearing from Johnson concerning Messiah’s body though they had called his cell phone several times. The grandmother was finally able to reach him and said Johnson told her that the child was being embalmed on the South Side but didn’t say where.
Messiah’s funeral was set for Friday, Jan. 29, but after not knowing where Messiah’s body was or if it was ever embalmed, Sykes, the grandmother, and another family member went to Jordan Shepard on Jan. 28. Sykes said they called Johnson again to meet with him. According to Sykes, they waited for about two hours. Johnson told Austin Weekly News that he was not that late. Sykes said she called police about Johnson and the missing infant. According to Sykes, police then called Johnson, informing him that if he didn’t show up in 20 minutes with the child, they would arrest him for being in possession of a stolen body. Sykes recalled that Johnson showed up not too long after with the body, which was not embalmed.
“He could have had the body anywhere – we didn’t know where the body was,” she said, adding that the child was embalmed that day.
Johnson told the Weekly that police were called but that he was already en-route to the funeral home when he was contacted. He said he was not arrested and that police left shortly after he arrived. Johnson added that Jordan Shepard embalmed Messiah, but that he has no record of a date and time when that occurred. Johnson, in fact, said that he doesn’t have records for any funeral services he’s conducted. He added that he has paperwork with the city of Chicago concerning his funeral service business.
Sykes also had her suspicions of Johnson when he had the family show up at yet another location on the West Side to pick out Messiah’s casket.
“That didn’t make any sense. If you say you own a funeral home, aren’t you supposed to have a catalogue with pictures of caskets, something?” she said.
When asked about this claim, Johnson told the Weekly that this was true. He explained that this was a standard practice for his business. He said he took the family to Loyal Casket, a company on the West Side at California and Wilcox. But he then quickly corrected himself and said the business was called William Casket. There is no business called William Casket on the West Side but there is a Loyal Casket at the location Johnson gave.