WEIGHING IN – Scattering or burying a loved one’s ashes is meant to provide a sense of closure. But what if you couldn’t be sure that the ashes in the urn actually belonged to your family member? What if you conducted a memorial service and now aren’t sure whether you had the remains of your husband or a stranger?
This is the kind of situation that at least 17 bereaved families have had to cope with as a result of a former Johnstown funeral director’s allegedly criminal behavior.
In new charges filed in Fulton County Court this week, Brian M. Barnett, the 36-year-old former director of the Ehle-Barnett Funeral Home, now faces 37 counts alleging he improperly stored corpses, took more than $37,000 for funeral services he never provided and filed false records with the New York State Department of Health related to cremated bodies, among other claims. Barnett pleaded not guilty.
Some of the more disturbing details accuse Barnett of concealing a decomposing human corpse on the first floor of a residence, “surrounded in children’s toys where the child readily had access,” according to court papers, and accepting $7,500 to incinerate the remains of Ellen Hart’s husband, Thomas Hart, only to allegedly hide Hart’s body in a garage for more than two years.
Johnstown Police reportedly first discovered improperly stored human remains once a family told them last January that they could not reach Barnett for several weeks after hiring him to conduct a cremation. Court papers reveal Barnett’s troubles date to at least August 2019, when a grand larceny charge alleges Barnett stole $7,500 when he received payment for funeral services that were not completed.
The crux of the case against Barnett is fairly simple: The charges allege he accepted money for work he never completed. That’s stealing. But there is something so affecting about these alleged crimes because of the disturbing mental images that arise and the impact all of this has on grieving families. Barnett’s alleged theft didn’t result in stacks of cash strewn around the funeral home; Barnett’s alleged crimes resulted in the remains of families’ loved ones being stored amid piles of trash.
It’s the kind of crime that seems very difficult to hide. And, yet, Barnett allegedly hid it for a long time. He even continued to operate after getting in trouble with state regulators.
In 2019, Barnett was fined $1,000 for registering the funeral home with the state 140 days late. The business remained in operation from July 1, 2019, to Nov. 18, 2019, despite not being properly registered, according to a stipulation order handed down by the Department of Health.
One of the charges against Barnett is a misdemeanor count of operating a funeral home without a license between Oct. 2, 2021, and Dec. 31, 2021.
The allegation that Barnett was continuing to run a business a stone’s throw from the Fulton County Courthouse while corpses were decomposing and state regulators should have been paying extra attention reveals all too clearly how easy it is to hide in plain sight. It reveals how difficult it is to know what’s truly going on in someone’s life.
Barnett himself seems to exemplify this. For what it’s worth, in court, Barnett has been sharply dressed and clean cut. (I covered the case in March, when he wore a light brown pea coat that matched the highlights of his hair.) And in a statement to our reporter Jason Subik this week, Barnett displayed reason and a receptiveness to accountability, saying: “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.”
We don’t yet know what happened in Barnett’s life and what may have turned an outwardly put-together young businessman into an alleged criminal.
We do know there are signs Barnett has dealt with substance abuse. Before a court appearance in March, Barnett had been taken to the McPike Addiction Treatment Center in Utica, and during that court appearance Barnett’s defense counsel, Ted Hartman, discussed Barnett being in rehab.
Barnett’s possible personal issues prompted one of the family members I spoke to in March to have a willingness to forgive. None of this excuses any of Barnett’s alleged actions – it only deepens the sadness.
Transparency offers the only path toward collective healing.
From the get-go, the case against Barnett has been haphazard and piecemeal. The former funeral director turned himself in last February hours after the Johnstown Police Department announced on social media that they had an active warrant for Barnett’s arrest. This was more than a week after Johnstown Police Chief David Gilbo held a press conference outlining the initial charges against Barnett. Then, this summer, Barnett had been expected to plead guilty to a lesser number of charges than those brought this week, but the former Acting Fulton County District Attorney Amanda Nellis tossed out the deal after more families came forward alleging they had paid for funeral services that were never completed.
The scattershot unveiling of details has made all of it feel even more troubling than it already is, because the families and community members have had to brace for more grim revelations at every turn.
Barnett said he’s willing to comment on the case once he’s reviewed the full scope of the charges against him. Frankly, that’s exactly what the bereaved families deserve. If Barnett can’t guarantee that remains are actually the remains of mourned loved ones, he owes as much clarity as he can possibly provide.
Only then will these families have the chance for much-needed closure.
Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.