Stephenson denies First Choice employment

Published 9:03 am Tuesday, April 23, 2013

MURFREESBORO – Christine Stephenson readily admits to being a member of the First Choice Funeral Home Board of Directors.

However, Stephenson adamantly denies ever having been employed by this Murfreesboro-based business, one that had its establishment permit permanently revoked by order of the North Carolina Board of Funeral Service (NCBFS).

That latter fact was published in this newspaper earlier this month after the information forwarded to the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald was confirmed during a telephone call to the NCBFS.

In the RCNH article it was reported that the NCBFS heard evidence concerning the operations of First Choice Funeral Home at meetings held in Raleigh on Jan. 10 and Feb. 13 of this year. As part of the board’s finding of facts, First Choice Funeral Home received its funeral establishment permit on Dec. 22, 2010. The NCBFS said First Choice was not licensed to sell preneed services at any time, nor were David and Gilda Robertson, listed as the officers of the corporation owning this funeral home, licensed by the Board or registered as trainees. The Board added that Christine Stephenson and Waverly Joyner Jr., both employees of First Choice, never received their license nor did they register as trainees.

However, Stephenson said the state board’s findings are untrue, at least on her behalf.

“I have never been an employee of First Choice Funeral Home in Murfreesboro,” stated Stephenson in a fax sent last week to this newspaper. “I never acted as a director, trainee, performed any duties that would indicate employment, never did any office work / paperwork, served any families for First Choice or worked at any of their funerals.”

Stephenson added that she was unaware she was considered as an employee at the now shuttered business until receiving a phone call from a community advocate (after the story was published).

“That person knew me and knew that this published information had to be incorrect,” Stephenson said. “I have, since the (release of) article, taken the necessary steps to uncover my alleged involvement with being an employee of First Choice Funeral Home.”

When asked was “necessary steps” were taken, Stephenson said she would rather not elaborate on that particular issue at the current time.

She was very straight forward about her personal involvement on the First Choice Board of Directors.

“I served on that board and, as such, referred families to First Choice just as I have referred families in need to other resources,” she noted. “And in response to the rumors that are circulating that I was arrested in reference to this, it is not true.”

The article published by this newspaper did not mention any arrests were made; only sanctions handed down by the NCBFS.

“Someone asked me, ‘How could this happen’,” Stephenson said, referencing her name being listed as an employee of First Choice. “In response I said that this is just confirmation to what incorrect information, rumors and gossip can do and how easily it spreads.”

In closing, Stephenson said she wanted to take the opportunity to thank her children, family, friends and the community that knows who she is for their continued support.

“I want to thank the public for their numerous calls in support of by well-being and let us also keep everyone involved in this situation in prayer,” she said.

The closure of First Choice Funeral Home was based on several factors, to include what the NCBFS deemed as “harassment” by continued telephone contacts from First Choice to a relative of a deceased family member after that relative explicitly stated they did not wish to employ the services of First Choice.

The NCBFS also ruled that an application from First Choice for a funeral chapel was forged.

On Nov. 18, 2011, an agent of the NCBFS conducted an investigation of the Robertsons in an effort to determine compliance by First Choice Funeral Home with the state’s General Statutes.

David Robertson allegedly offered to sell the agent funeral services and merchandise without presenting the agent with a general price list as required. Robertson also did not give the agent price lists for caskets or outer burial containers prior to discussing the sale of those items.

Upon receiving the general price list, the agent noted it did not contain the following: the telephone number of First Choice Funeral Home, disclosure concerning basic services, and the correct minimum price for direct cremation.

Robertson also presented the agent an advertisement offering to sell “pre-need funeral arrangements” when First Choice is not licensed to sell such services.

NCBFS Inspector Brett Lisenbee visited First Choice Funeral Home on Oct. 2, 2012. His inspection revealed that all embalming instruments were not stored in an enclosed cabinet or drawer; the identification tags were not made of durable, noncorroding material; there were caskets regularly offered for sale that were not listed on the casket price list; and First Choice was offering to sell preneed services on its outdoor business sign.

The inspector also noted that for the funeral of one woman, a funeral director did not warrant that the human remains delivered to the crematory were the same as the human remains identified on the cremation authorization form. Additionally, the inspector found violations in regards to the funeral home’s general price list.

Combined, the NCBFS concluded that, based on law, First Choice Funeral Home committed 31 violations. Included among those infractions were that Allen Ladd Jones failed to actively manage the business; the Robertsons and Joyner practiced funeral directing without a license; engaged in false and misleading advertising; engaged in activities that require a preneed license; failing to file a notification of death within 24 hours of assuming custody of human remains; failed to file a death certificate within the required five days; and engaged in fraud in obtaining a chapel registration.

The NCBFS suspended the funeral service license of Jones and another former First Choice manager, Everard Auston Hughes Jr., for a period of two years. Neither will be allowed to manage a funeral home until the two-year suspension ends. Both were ordered to complete a continuing education class in Funeral Rule compliance. If at any time during the probation period the NCBFS receives evidence that either Jones or Hughes have violated any of the Board’s laws or rules, the Board may impose such disciplinary action it determines as appropriate.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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