State investigators this week seized what appear to be cremated remains of at least 89 people from the abandoned Akron church of Shawnte Hardin, who was indicted last year on a slew of felony charges over his alleged mishandling of bodies across Ohio.
Court documents released Thursday include the names written on boxes or biohazard bags of remains found inside Greater Faith Missionary Baptist Church at 825 E. Buchtel Ave. by the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI).
Hardin — who state officials say has never been a licensed funeral director or embalmer in Ohio — says the newly discovered cremains are unrelated to his business dealing with the dead, Hardin’s attorney, Richard Kerger, said on Thursday.
The cremated remains instead belong to former Toledo funeral operator Robert Tate, Kerger said. Tate was found guilty of abusing corpses after authorities in northwest Ohio discovered 11 bodies rotting in a garage in 2015.
A spokesman for BCI Thursday declined to comment on its ongoing investigation.
And Tate, who was stripped of his own license over his handling of the dead, died last month.
The new revelations are the latest twist in the grim case that first made national headlines last year when police in Columbus discovered bodies stored in an empty storefront there. The bodies were connected to Hardin, who has held himself out as the provider of low-cost funeral services.
BCI, it turned out, had been investigating Hardin for several years after complaints from the state funeral board, families and an Akron crematory, who reported that Hardin had dropped off a decomposing body surrounded by mothballs.
Hardin now faces dozens of felony charges connected to his handling of bodies in Akron, Columbus, Toledo and Cleveland.
‘Urban explorers’ report discovery of apparent remains
It’s unclear why BCI investigators didn’t previously search the Buchtel Avenue church, where Hardin was known to hold church and funeral services and, some families say, store bodies.
The apparent cremains found there may have gone undiscovered if not for a couple of people who wandered into the facility on Sunday.
The people, who call themselves “urban explorers,” alerted authorities Monday, according to paperwork BCI filed to obtain a search warrant.
BCI agents seized and cataloged the remains the following day.
Although each cremains container is labeled with a name, it is not clear if the names correspond with the remains inside the bags and boxes. It’s also unclear how old the remains are or how long they had been at the church.
Many of the remains may belong to people in the Toledo area if Hardin was storing them for Tate, since his business was mostly in that area of Ohio.
Kerger said his client and Tate knew each other because they were both providing services to low-income people who often couldn’t afford the services provided by most funeral homes.
Hardin has been providing services for the dead since about 2014.
Tate, who was licensed, had a much longer career. His 30-year business ended in 2015 after he was convicted of abusing corpses. A Lucas County judge ordered Tate to surrender his embalming and funeral director’s licenses.
Two years later, Tate’s name and signature appear on a deed transfer for the funeral home at 815 E. Buchtel Avenue. Hardin signed, too. But Tate and Hardin’s business relationship is unclear.
A year before Tate signed the deed over from Celebration of Life Memorial Chapel of America LLC, Hardin used the Baptist church to trademark the Celebration of Life name.
Kerger said he was unaware of the Akron property transfer until a reporter mentioned it on Thursday. But Kerger said it was likely Tate was doing a favor for Hardin in return for Hardin storing the cremains at the church.
Authorities did not describe the conditions in which they found the apparent cremains.
What we know about Greater Faith Missionary Baptist Church
For now, Hardin remains on house arrest at his home in Columbus, Kerger said. A judge forbade him from participating in any aspect of the funeral business.
The Buchtel Avenue church doesn’t appear to have held services for a few years. A dedicated Facebook page hasn’t posted an update since a Sunday service in May 2018.
The steepled building built in 1930 transferred, along with the funeral home, for $65,000 in 2012 from the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio to Greater Faith Missionary Baptist Church.
By 2013, the funeral home built in 1916 had fallen behind on its property tax bill. The county sold off the rights to collect nearly $13,000.
The county again sold delinquent taxes of $2,833 in 2020 and $1,407 in 2021 to the third-party collector, who assessed 18% interest on the debt.
The old funeral home may have been used as an apartment at some time. The county penalized the owner for not putting it on the rental registry. The property record also indicates an active foreclosure.
Hardin told the Akron Beacon Journal in 2012 that his church attracted about 130 people to Sunday services and operated two Akron “Hope Houses,” providing temporary shelter to single mothers in West Akron and to those in drug addiction recovery next to the church.
“Our motto is ‘the church with clean hands and a pure heart.’ We have a passion for helping people,” Hardin said at the time.
‘How could somebody do this to someone’s family?’
Former parishioner LaTrenda Owens, who is 25, remembers differently.
She started attending the church in fifth grade with a sister and cousin. She was the only one to stay a member into her young adulthood. But it didn’t last long.
Owens said it got weird.
The pastor called her “daughter,” she said. And members began questioning Hardin about their donations as church bills went unpaid and late notices arrived.
She recalled one confrontation when the man who recorded Sunday services asked the pastor: “We know how much money you make in here. We know what you do with our money.”
Owens said Hardin cussed and yelled at members that day. She stopped attending the church in 2016 and said she was “flabbergasted” to learn of the accusations of mistreating dead bodies.
“How could somebody do this to someone’s family — possibly one of mine?” she asked.
When her aunt’s boyfriend died, Owen said Hardin handled the arrangements. But he couldn’t be reached for months, and the family suspected the body was in a box at the funeral home next door.
But church Trustee James May said he attended services led by Hardin every Sunday before the pandemic and never saw any evidence of bodies lying around.
May said he was not aware of any transfers of church property to Tate. He also said he had not heard any allegations that Hardin was stealing or in trouble with the law.