STOCKTON (CBS13) — Cremated remains were found in a U-Haul locker and bodies were found unrefrigerated inside a Stockton church where a pastor was illegally operating a funeral home.
Kurtis Ming launched his investigation after hearing from the family of a man who missed his own funeral.
A Stockton family had no idea the funeral home they called to handle their father’s arrangements closed three months before his death.
After Carla Southerland’s father, Robert Oliveira died, the hospital gave her a list of funeral homes, and on the list was Jesse E. Cooley Jr. Funeral Service. Southerland called the number and the person on the phone instructed them to drive to Boggs Tract Church across town to make the arrangements.
“The only way I identified where I was going…they had hearses out front,” Southerland recalled.
Eleven days after paying for his cremation, the family says his Oliveira’s remains weren’t ready for his funeral service in Vallejo. His remains would not make it to his own funeral.
“I was like, Oh my God. How do you tell somebody ‘I’m sorry he didn’t make it here?'” Southerland said.
With the program for his services already printed, the family had no choice but to cancel the interment portion at a Vallejo cemetery.
“I planned my dad’s funeral in advance and everything was falling apart,” she said. “I was really, really upset. I told them, ‘I will make sure somebody finds out about this.’”
Jesse E. Cooley Funeral Service’s name, phone number and state license are prominently displayed across the front of the folder the family received when making arrangements at the church. A Call Kurtis investigation uncovered the funeral home on North California Street in Stockton closed in August of 2018 and is now operating under a new name.
CBS13 drove to Boggs Tract Church on West Washington where the family made the arrangements and also found funeral vehicles parked outside. Pastor Steve Cooley is named on the awning.
We found a profile in the Stockton Record in 2013, calling Cooley a third-generation funeral director. At the time, he told the paper, “You can’t redo a funeral. There’s no room for mistakes.”
A CBS13 request of records under the California Public Records Act uncovered at the time of Robert Oliveira’s death, a state investigator with the Cemetery and Funeral Bureau was already zeroing in on Stephen Cooley and what was happening inside Boggs Tract Church.
Citations we examined used the words, “unlicensed activity”, “fraudulently”, “mislead”, “gross negligence”, “reckless”, “careless”, and “incompetence”.
An investigator found multiple decedents in an unsecured and unrefrigerated room. In one case, records show remains were in a condition that prevented a family from having a viewing service.
State records also show the discovery of cremated remains in paper bags and urns stacked up on top of each other in an offsite U-Haul storage facility.
None of these violations was readily available for the public to see on the Cemetery and Funeral Bureau’s website. The bureau operates under the Department of Consumer Affairs which refused to make anyone from the bureau available for our investigation.
They did provide us a spokesperson who admitted the bureau had work to do with posting citations online. However, she had limited answers to questions tied to this case.
CBS13’s Kurtis Ming asked how many loved ones were affected, to which Department of Consumer Affairs Spokesperson Veronica Harms responded, “That, unfortunately, is something I don’t have and something part of our continued investigation.”
CBS13 did press for more specifics considering the sensitive nature of these cases.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s one body if it’s 10 bodies. It’s still in violation of our laws and regulations,” Harms responded.
We did ask if the families knew what happened to their loved ones.
“That would be a question you’d have to ask the funeral director,” Harms said.
Kurtis replied, “So you leave it up to the funeral director to say. ‘Hey, we didn’t handle your loved one appropriately.”
“We can say that if you’re watching this segment, thankfully, you can call the director and ask them, ‘What happened to our loved ones?'” Harms responded.
We called the same exact phone number the family called when making arrangements and reached Pastor Stephen Cooley. We asked him that same question about what families knew.
“I don’t think they know the details of what happened,” he said. “I am human and subject to error.”
Cooley, who remains a licensed funeral director, claims a family dispute forced the Jesse Cooley funeral home on California Street to close last year. Cooley says he’s caring for a sick wife and admits he kept the phone number active and tried to operate off a license for his funeral home in Vallejo. The state says he can’t do that.
Cooley admits to funneling dozens of arrangements over to the church where he’s a pastor. He claims it was the original Stockton location for the family’s mortuary.
“There is an area in the back of the building, where the refrigerator was for 25 years,” Cooley said. “If I didn’t have this church, which initially and originally was the mortuary, I would have nowhere to go.”
Cooley admits the church is not currently a licensed location to handle arrangements and didn’t have enough refrigeration for the remains handled there.
We asked him about the cremated remains found off-site. He admits storing the cremated remains of 10-15 people at a storage facility because the families didn’t claim them. He says all have now been claimed.
As of early May, the state has cited Cooley 14 times since July. Out of a possible maximum fine of $70,000, the state fined him $8,200 which he has paid. Cooley says he is not currently handling any services, but he hopes to get a license to operate as a funeral home inside Boggs Tract Church.
“I extend my sincere apologies on behalf of Cooley mortuary and if it’s going to be deemed me being unprofessional, then I’ll accept that,” he said. “I pray they would consider my situation.”
After we got involved, he called Carla and apologized. She’s still upset her dad didn’t get the funeral he wanted.
“He was very adamant about what he wanted after he passed away,” she said.
Within days of his service, she did receive her dad’s remains. He’s now at rest at the cemetery.