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Ex-Dorchester funeral director pleads not guilty to 278 charges

O’Donnell held on $50,000 bail

Joseph V. O’Donnell, former owner of a funeral home on Neponset Avenue, was arraigned before Trial Magistrate Gary Wilson in Suffolk Superior Court.
Joseph V. O’Donnell, former owner of a funeral home on Neponset Avenue, was arraigned before Trial Magistrate Gary Wilson in Suffolk Superior Court.(John Blanding/Globe Staff)

Eileen Collins and Mary Scarborough were friends for 50 years and on Mother’s Day in 2013, Collins stood in mourning at the Cedar Grove Cemetery in Dorchester to say goodbye as the cremated remains of her friend were laid to rest.

But Scarborough was not interred there that day, Collins and her friend’s family later learned. In what Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley’s office has alleged is a long-running scheme, Scarborough’s body was not cremated at all, but stored for more than a year in a Weymouth self-storage facility by the man hired to handle her arrangements.

“It’s been an incredible nightmare,’’ said Collins on Monday. “Unbelievable.’’

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Joseph O’Donnell.
Joseph O’Donnell.(Suffolk District Attorney’s Office)

Collins was in Suffolk Superior Court on Monday watching as one-time funeral director Joseph V. O’Donnell was arraigned on 278 charges stemming from what Suffolk Assistant District Attorney Nicholas Walsh said were four broad schemes that sent the wrong remains to some families, left a dozen bodies stored in boxes and baskets in Weymouth, and cost others nearly $150,000 in advance burial fees that allegedly disappeared.

O’Donnell, 56, wore a beige suit jacket and tie and made a whispered suggestion to his court-appointed defense attorney during his arraignment where he pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Trial Magistrate Gary D. Wilson set bail at $50,000 cash, an amount O’Donnell is not expected to be able to raise any time soon. He has been unable to raise a smaller amount, $10,000 cash, since his arrest this summer.

O’Donnell, whose grandfather started the funeral business that was passed on to him, is homeless, Walsh said. The funeral home that once operated on Neponset Avenue in Dorchester has been foreclosed on and shuttered, the prosecution said. And, O’Donnell’s mother, with whom he was living before his arrest, has since died, Walsh said.

Walsh told Wilson that the investigation into O’Donnell began with an inquiry into failed payments but then grew into a much larger one that now alleges that he illegally presided over 201 funerals since 2008 after his state funeral director’s license expired.

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Walsh said that as part of the investigation, a search warrant was obtained this summer for a Weymouth storage facility allegedly connected to O’Donnell. “Twelve human remains were found, badly decomposing,’’ he said “Some were in baskets. Some were in boxes. Some were on top of one another.’’

Walsh said some of the remains had been there for several years. He said authorities have identified 11 of the 12 people. Efforts are continuing to identify the last person, he said.

He also said that eight different times O’Donnell allegedly provided the cremated remains of someone unknown to the families — like Scarborough’s — falsely claiming that they were from their loved one.

Defense attorney Andrew Stockwell-Alpert said O’Donnell would like to be freed so he can begin paying back people whom he allegedly defrauded of thousands in advance payments on funerals. The lawyer said, though, that O’Donnell did not admit doing anything wrong.

Collins said the death of her friend was a blow, but the alleged mishandling of her remains has added to that loss. “The things he did are unbelievable,’’ she said.

But the longtime resident still offered some compassionate words for O’Donnell, who appears to have lost everything, including his freedom.

“For him to end up like this is sad,’’ she said, “but if he did something wrong, he should pay for it.’’

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Related coverage:

Former Dorchester funeral home director indicted on 278 charges

Investigators seek to identify human remains found in storage units

Human remains found in Weymouth, Somerville storage facilities


John R. Ellement can be reached at ellement@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.