Death certificates, probate judgments and estate records obtained by The Augusta Chronicle show the depth of theft from the dead alleged against Grover Tuten during his time as Richmond County coroner.
There’s the case of Shane Randall Hobbs, a 26-year-old who was taken off life support when he was declared brain dead Oct. 28, 2012. A Richmond County probate judge approved up to $1,995 for Tuten to bury Hobbs in the pauper section of the city-owned Westview Cemetery near Lake Olmstead.
The coroner requested $1,725, and indictment papers say Tuten accepted the payment but didn’t report it to Augusta-Richmond County staff for city reimbursement. Burial records kept by the Augusta Department of Recreation, Parks and Facilities show Hobbs was laid to rest Nov. 7, 2012, in a concrete-liner vault below a piece of triangle-shaped land across from the cemetery’s office building.
Hobbs spent much of his life in a Hephzibah group home with little support from his family to overcome a defect that prevented oxygen-rich blood from reaching his brain, said Augusta lawyer Jack Long, who was appointed to administer a structured settlement awarded to the Hobbs family at birth in a medical malpractice case.
Long said he is still unsure of what happened to the burial payment he gave the coroner or how it could have been taken without anyone noticing.
The family of another deceased person is also in the dark about what happened to money they gave the coroner.
The indictment states that Tuten – who resigned in February and has pleaded not guilty to eight counts of theft and five counts of violation of oath of office – misappropriated funds from the estate of 79-year-old Army veteran Billy Joe Fletcher on Sept. 28, 2010. That was the same day the family paid the coroner $3,224, records on file in Richmond County Probate Court show.
No receipts are available to explain the charge, and District Attorney Ashley Wright declined comment. Fletcher’s son and only heir said in an e-mail that the $3,224 check was issued to the coroner’s office for the release of his father’s 2002 Ford Ranger.
“Mr. Tuten had moved (the truck) from my father’s home and kept it at the coroner’s office,” wrote Hugh Fletcher, who lives in the Orlando, Fla., area. “The charges were for ‘impound fees’ and the tow bill to his office. During the time he had the truck, he allegedly replaced the battery and tires, which were also part of the bill.”
Tuten’s attorney, Danny Durham, did not return phone messages seeking comment.
Fletcher said an FBI agent working on the case contacted him a couple of months ago, and he gave the investigator as much information as he could. After speaking to Sam Powell, his uncle and executor of his father’s estate, Fletcher declined an interview until the case comes to a conclusion.
When reached at his home in Connecticut, Powell said the indictment was news to him.
“I have absolutely no idea about what’s happening in Georgia,” he said. “If the funds were misappropriated, I do not know anything about it. I paid a lot of bills and made a lot of transactions trying to monetize estate funds for distribution.”
TO AVOID FUTURE problems, the county’s new coroner, Mark Bowen, has amended department policy on the handling of personal property. He said new forms require four sets of signatures to admit and release property stored at the coroner’s Eighth Street office.
That’s a step that should have already been in place, other Georgia coroners say.
Coroners in Burke and Liberty counties said they strictly follow state law and only take possession of property found on a body. As a result, they said they have not had any problem with property being mishandled.
“My office strictly does what it has been authorized to do, which is to determine cause and manner of death,” said Reginald Pierce Sr., the Liberty County coroner and president of the Georgia Coroners Association. “As far as personal property left behind, I do not get involved. The county commission settles that.”
After photographing and documenting belongings on a form signed by a law enforcement witness, the two counties have local police secure a deceased person’s property and have the sheriff’s office watch it until probate judges or county officials rule on the case.
Pierce said if a deceased person does not have surviving relatives or an estate, his office fills out an indigent care form for commissioners to approve burial or cremation funds.
“I don’t like to handle personal property, unless it is necessary to an ongoing investigation and we need to hold property,” Pierce said. “If you’re the one handling personal property, you’re the one people are going to be pointing fingers at if stuff goes missing.”
Burke County Coroner Susan Salemi said burial payments and property for people with little funds or no family are handled by the county lawyer.
“I’m not touching it,” said Salemi, a certified police officer. “I use itemized receipts to account for all property on the body and then have police lock and secure the home. That is a rule I am a stickler about following.”
Salemi, who has been in office for nine years, said she was surprised by the allegations against Tuten, who she said had been a friend. She said he broke the oath he made to the county to serve the people honorably.
“We cannot do anything to help the dead person, but by God, we owe it to their family and friends to do everything we can to help them in the appropriate manner,” she said.