Police found 12 bodies in a storage unit three weeks ago. So why isn’t anyone facing charges yet?


An investigation into a former funeral-home operator turned grisly with the discovery of 12 bodies at a storage unit near Boston. (Reuters/Brian Snyder)

Police in Massachusetts made a grim discovery in mid-July: One storage shed packed with a dozen bodies and another containing cremated remains. Suspicion focused on a former funeral-home director, who was already under investigation for another matter. Family members demanded answers. Authorities worked to identify the remains.

Investigators made progress in the weeks that followed; Most of the 12 bodies located in the shed last month have been identified, according to the Boston Herald.

Still, though, no charges have been filed. Why not?

“Because this is expected to be a long-term and complex investigation, we don’t plan on starting the clock ticking on new charges unless the landscape charges with regard to [the possible suspect] being a flight risk,” Jake Wark, a spokesman for the Suffolk District Attorney, told The Post on Wednesday. “We have the luxury of time to pursue a very methodical case.”

Joseph O’Donnell (AP Photo/Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office)
Joseph O’Donnell (Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office via Associated Press)

After all, the main target of the investigation, Joseph O’Donnell, isn’t going anywhere: He was arraigned on larceny charges earlier this year and is being held in a Boston jail. Authorities believe O’Donnell stole more than $12,000 that was supposed to be used for funeral costs.

When the victim and his wife tried to use some of the funds — which they had given O’Donnell as a pre-payment — to cover the costs of a family member’s service, they learned that O’Donnell’s funeral home had closed. They contacted O’Donnell, who, according to authorities, told them he’d return their payments, but failed to do so.

Police discovered the storage shed — and the remains — while investigating that case. They’ve used medical and dental records to make identifications, though some of the remains came with some form of ID that gave investigators a starting point, Wark said.

“Here,” Wark said, “is the concern: If he was taking money for cremations and not performing those cremations and not facilitating them, it’s possible that a person — that a family — might have entrusted their loved ones remains to him for cremation and actually received another set, another person’s cremated remains.”

Among those affected is April Hopkins, whose granddaughter died about a week after she was born in 2011. The next year, Hopkins lost her son, who was killed in a car crash. For years, Hopkins kept what she thought were their cremated remains, according to Boston’s ABC affiliate, WCVB. Last month, however, Hopkins learned that the remains belonged to neither her son nor her grandchild.

“My granddaughter — her ashes are not her,” Hopkins told WCVB in late July. “Where is she? If there’s no ashes and there’s no baby, what did he do with her?”

In announcing the discovery of the bodies, the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office said “investigators do not believe their deaths were the result of foul play,” adding that “the circumstances of their placement in a storage facility is a central point of inquiry.”

O’Donnell is due back in court later this month. His attorney did not immediately return a phone call Wednesday.

Update: The Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office on Wednesday said 11 bodies had been identified, then revised the figure later in the day. This story has been updated to reflect that new information.

Sarah Larimer is a general assignment reporter for the Washington Post.
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