FORT WORTH — Almost four years after authorities found three decomposing bodies inside a repossessed van, the owner of a former cadaver transportation company is apologizing for his actions on a highway billboard.
Donald Richard Short, 44, was required to write the message and pay for the billboard at Texas 121 and Beach Street as part of his probation, prosecutor Hugo Martinez said.
Short was sentenced to two years’ probation in April 2006 after pleading no contest to three charges of corpse abuse for mishandling the bodies of Lonnie Leffall, Odis Hughes and Thomas Shadowens.
Williams Funeral Chapel had hired Short’s company, North Star Transportation, to take the bodies of the three men, who had died in 2000 of natural causes, to a crematorium and deliver their ashes to the appropriate locations. But after Short’s van was towed from his Hurst home, the remains were found March 2, 2005, zipped in dirty body bags, stacked atop each other and hidden under cardboard boxes.
"I should treat the deceased in my care with dignity and respect. I utterly failed them, their families and the community. I am remorseful and I apologize. — Donald Short," reads the billboard message.
Judge Deborah Nekhom Harris ordered Short to make the unusual public apology. She could not be reached for comment Tuesday. "She told him, 'You’re going to have to do this, so you might want to start saving money for it,’ " Martinez said.
Short was also ordered to write letters of apologies to the families, pay a $4,000 fine and restitution, perform community service and never work in the funeral industry again. Case records show Short’s probation was extended a year this past March, evidently to give Short more time to pay the restitution.
Todd Dalton, sales manager for Lamar Advertising, said the billboard’s message was posted on Thursday and will remain up for a month. He said the cost of renting a billboard at that location is $2,500 to $3,000.
Martinez said the judge had recently issued a 30-day deadline.
"The judge gave him a specific timeline of when she wanted the billboard paid for and up and running," Martinez said. "He kind of dragged his feet on that."
On Dec. 8, prosecutors filed a motion to revoke Short’s probation after he missed the judge’s deadline.
"His probation was in the process of being revoked, but he complied with the conditions," he said.
Though Short’s probation was not revoked, the judge did order him to spend an additional 10 days in jail as an added requirement of his probation. He is serving out that time on weekends at the Tarrant County Jail under the work-release program, Tarrant County records show.
Martinez said Short had submitted a few drafts of his apology for approval by the judge and Martinez.
"I got the feeling that he really was remorseful, especially in light of what he wrote," Martinez said. "I think it was a good idea on the part of the judge making this part of his probation."
Bobbie Tarpley, Leffall’s cousin, had not heard about the billboard Tuesday when reached by a reporter but planned to drive by and see it. Tarpley said she is still troubled that the "remains of a person would just be cast aside so casually."
But Tarpley said she believes that Short does feel bad about his actions and that his intentions were not malicious. She said she hopes the billboard will prevent others from making a similar poor choice.
"Maybe this won’t happen again by the judge making that," Tarpley said. "We’ll be a little more careful about the actions we do or don’t take."