STOCKTON (CBS13) — Three days after Lamark Otis Day Jr. died in the hospital following a seizure, his body was so badly decomposed, a Call Kurtis Investigation revealed his family could not have an open-casket funeral.
The 25-year-old was a newlywed and father when he died unexpectedly on a Friday in September 2018. His family immediately turned to Cooley’s Funeral Home in Stockton as they have in the past.
“All of my relatives,” said mother-in-Law Angela Ealy-Hale. “We’ve gone to Cooley’s.”
A funeral worker picked up his body from the hospital.
The family didn’t realize Jesse E. Cooley Jr. Funeral Services, who they thought they were calling, actually closed a month before Lamark’s death. The phone number was still active.
The family said they were instructed to go to Boggs Tract Church in Stockton on Monday after Lamark’s death to make the arrangements. At the church, a funeral worker told them the open casket service they wanted with their Christian faith was not possible.
“And I said, ‘What’s wrong with the body?” Ealy-Hale recalls. “He said the tissue gas caused the body to swell.”
She asked to see the body, but the worker told her it was off site.
“I said, ‘Can I go there?’ And they said, ‘No, you can’t go there, but we can have the body here tomorrow.'”
She returned to the church the next day to an experience that still haunts her.
“You could smell the odor when they brought him in,” she recalled. “And they took him to the front of the chapel and they unzipped the bag for us to see and it was horrific.”
Angela says her son-in-law looked like a monster.
“How could someone do this?” she recalled thinking. “It was like something out of a horror movie. It really was. It was like something out of a horror movie; the condition of his body.”
CBS13 has uncovered a family dispute caused the Jesse E. Cooley Junior Funeral Home on California Street to close in August 2018. Stephen Cooley, who ran that funeral home, kept the phone number and fraudulently funneled business across Stockton to Boggs Tracts Church where he is the pastor.
While he is a licensed funeral director, the church location has since been cited for not being a licensed funeral establishment and misleading the public by representing themselves as the prior funeral home.
CBS13 reported earlier this year about a family who did not get their love one’s cremated remains back in time for his funeral. We uncovered citations stating an investigator found multiple decedents in an unsecured and unrefrigerated room and discovered cremated remains in paper bags and urns stacked up on top of each other in an offsite U-Haul storage facility.
In a phone interview earlier this year, Cooley admitted to CBS13 that the church had refrigeration for two people, but “didn’t have adequate refrigeration” for all the cases handled there. State law says a body must be embalmed or refrigerated within 24-hours of death.
Kurtis: Were bodies left sitting there unembalmed for days?
Cooley: Of course not. No. I’d be in jail.
But Lamark Day was not embalmed, and Cooley hung up on CBS13 when we later called him about this case.
We brought our entire investigation to the faculty of the American River College Funeral Program, who collectively have more than 60 years of funeral industry experience. Our file included photos from the hospital shortly after Lamark died, graphic photos that Cooley’s staff provided the family three days after the death, and a photo the family took of Lamark’s body on Tuesday inside the church.
The three experts likened the decomposition to what you’d find if a body was not found for days, out in the elements.
“I’m still processing it, Kurtis. I’m still processing these pictures you showed us,” said Nathan Skelton, who is a licensed embalmer, funeral director and crematory operator.
“It’s appalling,” said Valarie Rose, a licensed embalmer and funeral director. “I mean, I’m a professional and I was shocked by it.”
Jeff Stephenson, who created the funeral program at American River College in 2002, shook his head in disbelief. I held up the photo of Lamark Day’s body taken within three days of his death and asked if it had been refrigerated.
“No,” Stephenson said.
“How certain are you?” I asked.
“I would put my license on line for that,” he said. “There is no way a body would decompose like that, that quickly. We would expect that if someone was found outdoors, or if they died and no one found them for a period of time. In this particular case, this person died in the hospital.”
The high temperatures in Stockton during the weekend after Lamark’s death were in the 90s.
CBS13 uncovered California’s Cemetery and Funeral Bureau investigated this particular case and cited Cooley $750, writing, “You failed to notify L. Day’s family of the decedent’s condition within a reasonable amount of time…. thereby allowing the remains to be in the condition that prevented the family from having a viewing service.”
The Funeral professionals say they cannot believe the fine was just $750 and say the citation does not match what happened in this case.
“That being the reason the citation was administered to the funeral home, doesn’t scratch the surface of what’s really going on there,” Skelton said.
Rose added, “Those pictures tell me that person passed away at a hospital. They were in viewable condition and the funeral home didn’t care for that body at all.”
They feel Cooley should have been stripped of his license and arrested.
“You’re destroying a body,” Rose said. “I mean, it’s still a person.”
The California Cemetery and Funeral Bureau, who licenses Funeral Directors, has refused to make anyone with direct knowledge of this investigation available to CBS13 for an interview, so I asked some questions at an agency hearing in May during time dedicated for public comment.
Executive Director Gina Sanchez asked me to leave my contact information and publicly said, “You are always welcome to call me directly.”
I contacted Sanchez to arrange a conversation. She directed me to speak with the agency’s Public Affairs Office. I reminded Sanchez by email, she invited me to call her directly. She then agreed to speak with me by phone with a Public Affairs representative next to her and asked me to email some questions so she could prepare.
After I sent those questions, Sanchez once again backed out of a phone conversation.
“This needs to come out so something is done about it,” Rose said.
“The laws are there to protect us and to protect our industry. So when they’re not enforced, or a slap on the wrist, it doesn’t do anybody any good,” Skelton added.
Angela says her daughter never got to say a proper goodbye with an open casket funeral. Angela says seeing her son-in-law’s decomposing body haunts her nearly a year after his death.
“You know it won’t be sketched in my mind that handsome young man that my son-in-law was. The last memories I have is what I saw when they showed me his body. I just don’t want to see anybody else’s family to have to go through this.”