JOHNSTOWN — Brian M. Barnett, the former funeral home director already facing multiple criminal charges stemming from a Johnstown Police Department investigation of his business, pleaded not guilty Tuesday to new charges from the same case — including first-degree scheme to defraud, a class E felony.
The charges against Barnett all stem from a Jan. 14, 2022 search of his former funeral home business at 15 North William St., which revealed three improperly stored decomposing bodies, two of them in the garage behind the funeral home. Police allege business records show Barnett accepted payment for funeral services he never provided, including during time periods his funeral home director license had been suspended by New York state.
The total count of the charges against Barnett has risen from 16, when he was originally arrested in March after turning himself in to police, to 37 total counts on Tuesday.
Barnett and his defense counsel, Ted Hartman of Albany, waived his right to a complete reading of the charges against him during the court proceeding Tuesday in front of Fulton County Court Judge Michael Smrtic.
During the court hearing a trial date was set for May 22, but after the proceeding Barnett indicated he has not decided yet how his defense from the new charges will proceed.
“I’m just getting the indictment, so we have to read it,” Barnett said. “Obviously, I think this has been trial by media from the get-go, but I’m not one to skirt responsibility for anything I did do. The fact is, I haven’t had a chance to review evidence, review anything yet, and I’m just really looking forward to making a statement once I am able to review the evidence and weigh the options of a trial versus a plea.”
Barnett had been expected to plead guilty to a lesser number of charges in August as part of a plea deal that would have exposed him to up to 2.5 to seven years in prison. But that deal was scrapped by Acting Fulton County District Attorney Amanda Nellis after an August meeting with families who claimed there were additional funeral services Barnett had been paid for but never completed.
Nellis at the time said the additional allegations against Barnett would potentially increase the amount he is accused of stealing from funeral home customers to above $50,000, the threshold to be charged with 2nd-degree grand larceny. The charge carries a potential sentence of up to 15 years in state prison.
But that wasn’t reflected in the indictment Tuesday.
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The current charges against Barnett appear to include both a condensing and expansion of some of the original charges.
Barnett was originally charged with multiple counts of grand larceny for accepting money for funeral services he failed to provide, but on Tuesday those counts were condensed to one grand larceny count of stealing $37,214 from funeral home customers, still a class D felony.
He is now charged with four counts of class E felony concealment of a human corpse, one count each for allegedly concealing the bodies of Shirley Anderson, Thomas Hart, Grover LaFountain and Ruth Miller. The charge includes the allegation that he concealed their remains knowing the discovery of them would result in a criminal investigation.
He is charged with 17 counts of misdemeanor improper burial, a violation of Public Health Law Section 4200, for allegedly failing to bury or incinerate within a reasonable time the bodies of Anderson, Hart, LaFountain, Miller, Andrew Barecka, Carl Boyle, Anthony Diviyak, Deborah Grewen, former HMF BOCES Board of Education President Joanne Freeman, Elsie Hawkins, Robert Mead, George Ringland, 2021 Democratic Party candidate for Johnstown city treasurer Thomas Suydam, Louis Tovey, Erica Crear, Rita Anderson and Joseph Bartosik.
Barnett is charged with eight class E felonies of filing a false instrument for allegedly knowingly filing inaccurate death certificates and or false documents with the New York state Department of Health related to the cremation of bodies
He is also charged with one misdemeanor count of operating a funeral home without a license between Oct. 2, 2021 and Dec. 31, 2021.
The new class E felony first-degree scheme to defraud charge alleges Barnett, between May 5, 2017 ad Jan. 14, 2022, engaged in “a systemic ongoing course of conduct with the intent to defraud ten or more people or to obtain property from ten or more persons by false or fraudulent pretenses …” and includes the allegation he accepted $7,500 from Ellen Hart to incinerate the remains of her husband, Thomas Hart, but instead hid his body in his garage for more than two years after receiving payment for the cremation service.
Thomas Hart, who died at the age of 64 on Aug. 18, 2019, was a Johnstown resident who was well-known for his playing in several popular bands, including Skyler’s Dream Team.
Several relatives of Thomas Hart, including his brother, Wally Hart, former president of the Regional Chamber of Commerce, and his brother-in-law Johnstown 3rd Ward Supervisor John “Jack” Callery, who is married to Thomas Hart’s sister, attended the proceedings.
Wally Hart said the family had conducted a funeral for his brother with what had appeared at the time to be his cremated remains.
“We thought that’s what they were, but you’re not really paying attention at that point,” Wally Hart said. “What we’re just waiting for is for this to go to trial or for Brian to plead, whatever happens, and then the family will make a statement.”
At the time of the Jan. 14 search of Barnett’s business, the Johnstown Police Department described the two bodies in the garage as being “both in advanced states of decomposition” amid “a significant amount of garbage and excess furniture.” Police said those remains were removed by the AG Cole Funeral home at the request of the Fulton County Coroner’s Office.
Hoffman on Tuesday would not comment on the condition of Hart’s body at the time it was discovered, but said, “We did find Mr. Hart in the garage behind the funeral home.”
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