Leon Atkinson wants his father’s body.
Funeral home director Dale Coffelt wants his money.
The dispute over a $1,700 bill has left Albert Atkinson’s body in a mortuary freezer for more than a month. He died Aug. 27 and missed his own funeral after his son, Leon, refused to pay the funeral home.
Leon Atkinson, a well-known classical guitarist, now is suing to get his father’s body back. He got a court order Monday to stop the county from cremating him and burying him at taxpayers’ expense.
Coffelt charged a flat rate of $870 to cover funeral director services, the same he charges all his clients. That was exorbitant, according to Leon Atkinson, who offered to pay $450.
Now, the bizarre battle for Albert Atkinson’s body is headed for court.
In the meantime, Leon Atkinson made good on his threat to alert the media of his plight and paint Coffelt as the man who is “holding my father’s body hostage.”
But in this town, it seems Coffelt is the one garnering sympathy, not Atkinson.
“This has been an uncomfortable thing. I’m tired of being painted as the bad guy in this,” said Coffelt, who also serves as Bonner County coroner.
At his mortuary, Coffelt’s fielded more than 40 calls of support. Most have been from the business community who detailed their past transactions with Atkinson. “He has a pattern of not wanting to pay his bills,” Coffelt said.
Court records support Coffelt’s claim. Atkinson has been sued at least 17 times by rental companies, grocery stores, and credit agencies for non-payment. Even the attorney who worked on Atkinson’s divorce had to file a lawsuit in small claims court to get his fees.
Atkinson, who hosts a music program on public radio and teaches guitar at Gonzaga University, could not be reached for comment Monday.
His attorney, Tevis Hull, said the fact Atkinson has had trouble paying bills in the past has nothing to do with this case.
“I don’t care if he doesn’t pay his bills. No one deserves to have a family member held hostage,” Hull said. “You just don’t do that. Common human decency tells you that. It’s sad it’s come to this.”
Hull had a judge sign a temporary restraining order to stop the county from cremating and burying Albert Atkinson. The county had declared Albert Atkinson indigent, so it could remove his body from the mortuary freezer and bury him at taxpayers expense.
A judge in Kootenai County was assigned Atkinson’s case. All the magistrate judges in Bonner County removed themselves from hearing it. Most have dealt with Atkinson in court before on domestic violence, animal abuse and driving offenses.
Coffelt said he tried to discourage Leon Atkinson from using his funeral service at the outset because of past problems. Atkinson never paid Coffelt for a horse which he later dropped off, half-starved, at another ranch, Coffelt said. The horse died.
“I told him he and I had problems before and I prefer he find another funeral home,” Coffelt said. Atkinson insisted Coffelt take care of his father and agreed to pay cash for the services, Coffelt said. He has the signed agreement that includes his basic charge of $870.
“He (Leon Atkinson) can afford to pay it. He is not indigent,” Hull said. “It’s the fees he is disputing. He (Coffelt) didn’t do anything for the $870.”
Besides the funeral director fee, the rest of the $1,700 bill is for embalming, transportation and other costs.
Atkinson wants to use his own Bonner County property to bury his father. He already paid about $1,000 in cash for a concrete vault for the body.
Atkinson first visited Coffelt on Aug. 28, the day after his father died. The funeral home didn’t hear from Atkinson again for eight days, when he refused to pay the bill.
Coffelt thought the dispute was over when Atkinson said he would pick up his father Sept. 6 and pay the debt. Atkinson never showed up for the meeting. Coffelt later started the paperwork to list Albert Atkinson as an unclaimed body.
“Mr. Atkinson had never been unclaimed,” Hull said. “Leon has been trying to get his father’s body for a month and he does not need to be buried at the public’s expense.”
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