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Owner of seized mortuary says he’s reached accord with state

Robert Bethea, owner of Bethea Funerals and Cremations, said he expects to reopen as soon as the Kansas Department of Revenue can release his seized business assets and the Board of Mortuary Arts can conduct an inspection and give him the go-ahead.
Robert Bethea, owner of Bethea Funerals and Cremations, said he expects to reopen as soon as the Kansas Department of Revenue can release his seized business assets and the Board of Mortuary Arts can conduct an inspection and give him the go-ahead. The Wichita Eagle

The owner of a Wichita mortuary seized this week for back taxes said Friday that he has agreed on a payment plan with the state and expects to be back in business in a matter of days.

“We’ve come to an agreement and we’ll be acting on that next week,” said Robert Bethea, owner of Bethea Funerals and Cremations.

He said he expects to reopen as soon as the Kansas Department of Revenue can release his seized business assets and the Board of Mortuary Arts can conduct an inspection and give him the go-ahead.

Bethea said he wants to apologize to grieving families who were inconvenienced by the tax seizure and thank members of the city’s African-American community who have rallied to raise money to help save his business.

When the department seized the business, five bodies awaiting cremation were transferred to a nearby mortuary.

“I never want a family to go through that again,” Bethea said. “They’re going through enough already with the grieving process.”

Other customers had expressed concerns about the disposition of ashes being held for them by the mortuary and about their prepaid funeral plans.

Revenue department officials said they did not seize the ashes, which weren’t stored at the business’ main location on Maple. Betha said he has been able to accommodate families’ requests for ashes even with the business closed.

The prepaid plans were never in danger, said Mack Smith, executive secretary of the Kansas Board of Mortuary Arts.

The money customers pay in advance goes into insurance policies, not straight to the mortuary. In cases where a funeral home is unable to fulfill a pre-need arrangement, the family can select another provider, he said.

“It’s not a problem at all,” he said. “It’s a simple change of beneficiary. … The money is going to go to the funeral home that provides the services and merchandise.”

Revenue officials have said they moved to seizure after repeated efforts to communicate on the approximately $63,000 tax debt went unanswered. Spokeswoman Rachel Whitten said the department sympathizes with the bereaved families affected by the seizure and that agents timed their raid so it wouldn’t disrupt any funerals in progress.

Bethea said the original debt arose from bookkeeping errors and that a Colorado-based tax consultant he hired to negotiate a payment plan with the revenue department took his money but didn’t do anything productive.

“I’m not an accountant, I’m a mortician,” he said. “I paid experts who I thought were experienced to negotiate for me, and they didn’t come through.”

He also said he had expected to have to go it alone in straightening out the tax problems and was astonished when friends, churches, entertainers and ordinary citizens stepped forward to help him pay off the debt.

A GoFundMe page, set up by Wichita barber Aaron Profit and New Day Church Pastor Ruben Eckels, has raised more than $3,100 in its first two days.

And a benefit concert, featuring gospel, comedy, poetry and other acts, is scheduled for 6 p.m. June 3 at New Life Church, 1156 N. Oliver.

“I will definitely be there to give them my thanks … thank everyone for the community support,” Bethea said. “I didn’t ask for anything, but God is a blessing God.”

Dion Lefler: 316-268-6527, @DionKansas

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