Augusta family seeks answers from GBI about decayed body

The family of an Augusta man who died in his sleep wants an explanation from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation about the decayed condition of his body after it was released from the state crime lab.

Paul “T-Bone” Thomas was found unresponsive in bed on the afternoon of May 11 in the home of his mother on Fort View Court in Augusta, authorities said. The 49-year-old had gone to bed early the night before because he wasn’t feeling well, his wife, Sheri Thomas, said.

The family called 911 but her husband could not be revived, Thomas said.

Thomas said she came to the house while the coroner was still there. She and his mother were allowed to kiss him on the forehead before his body was taken away.

“At least I got to tell him goodbye,” Thomas said.

Thomas had hoped her husband’s sister and children would also get to see him one last time and say their own farewells before he was buried, but that wasn’t to be.

Thomas said she received a call from the funeral home director three days later. He said Paul Thomas’s body was in such an advanced state of decomposition that there could be no viewing and no open casket for the funeral, which was planned for today at Woodland Baptist Church in Wrens, Ga.

“He said there was no way he could do anything,” Thomas said. “He wouldn’t want anybody to look at him.”

Edward James, the owner of James Funeral Home in Wrens and the coroner in Jefferson County, said he was surprised by the condition of the man’s body when he saw it Monday.

Given the circumstances of the death, he had expected to be able to have no difficulty in preparing the body for viewing. But the man in the body bag was unrecognizable.

“The body was decomposed bad enough that I couldn’t do anything,” James said.

James said he’s never seen a situation like this in 20 years in the funeral business.

Neither has Richmond County Coroner Grover Tuten.

Tuten said Deputy Coroner Mark Bowen had sent the body to the Eastern State Crime Lab on Phinizy Road for autopsy, because Paul Thomas had a history of prescription drug abuse and there was no obvious cause of death.

Sheri Thomas said a back injury had led to her husband’s addiction to prescription painkillers, which ultimately resulted in a short stint in state prison. The two were separated but had been working on getting back together in the months since his release.

Still, she was worried that he had a prescription for pain pills again.

“He was slipping,” she said. “Still fighting those demons.”

Bowen said Thomas was last seen alive about 5 a.m. He was found dead about 1:30 p.m. and was taken to the state crime lab less than three hours later. The crime lab had assured him an autopsy would take place the next day, even though it was a Saturday, but for some reason the autopsy wasn’t done.

“They just rolled it over to Monday,” Bowen said.

The body stayed in the custody of the GBI until Monday, but no autopsy was performed. Tuten said instead the medical examiner chose to do an external examination and draw blood for toxicology tests.

The lab called the funeral home to come pick up the body about 11 a.m. Monday, but no one said anything about the condition, James said.

Tuten said he had never seen a human body decay so fast or so severely when properly stored.

“I’ve kept bodies in my cooler for 10 days and never had a problem like this,” he said. “This looked like it had been sitting in a hot house for two days.”

GBI spokesman John Bankhead said the body was kept in the crime lab cooler all weekend, but decay had set in long before it was in their custody.

“This had nothing to do with us,” Bankhead said.

He said Thomas must have been dead much longer than the coroner’s estimate of seven to eight hours.

“Decomposition is fast once it starts,” he said. “A cooler may slow it down, but it’s not going to stop it.”

Tuten said in his more than 30 years of experience with dealing with the dead he hasn’t seen a case like this. He said the photos from the scene of the death don’t show any visible signs of decay. The photos that James took in the funeral home three days later show a body swollen from putrification. The man’s skin changed from a pale pallor to shades of gray, green and black, and the skin was beginning to loosen and slip away.

“If they had just done the autopsy on Saturday, like they said they would, none of this would have happened,” Tuten said.

Sheri Thomas said the situation has been difficult for the family. Not only was her husband’s death unexpected, but many relatives hadn’t been able to see him since he was released from prison.

“His daughter hasn’t seen him since he came home,” she said.

The family deserves an explanation, said the man’s sister, Rosita Thomas, who lives in Washington, D.C. She said the GBI has not called the funeral home or the family to discuss the situation.

“I just want someone to take responsibility,” she said. “Just step up and let us know what they did.”

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