A 5-year-old Hickory boy who died of juvenile leukemia last year has had his grave marker repossessed in a financial tug-of-war between his parents and a North Carolina monument company.
The boy, Jake Leatherman, made national news last November when dozens of NASCAR drivers, crew and other personnel attended his funeral, including Joey Logano, Matt DiBenedetto, and Ryan Ellis. The boy never got a chance to go to a NASCAR race, but was a devoted fan of the sport, and idolized NASCAR star Richard Petty.
Wayne and Crystal Leatherman of Hickory told the Observer’s news partner WBTV Monday that they were stunned to learn their son’s grave marker was gone. In its place was a hole full of mud.
“He repossessed it, like it was a car,” Crystal Leatherman told WBTV. “This is my lowest point.”
The monument at Woodlawn Memorial Gardens in Hickory was removed by the cemetery last week after a month-long dispute, the Rev. J.C. Shoaf, who, runs Southeastern Monument company, said Tuesday. Shoaf, who is also a Baptist minister, told the Observer he’s now having second thoughts about the action.
“I hated to do it. I’m not heartless and I have had a child die, so I know how it feels. But what was I to do?” said Shoaf, 73, who has been a minister for 50 years. “I thought having (the marker) would give me some leverage. In hindsight, I should have just written it up as a bad debt.”
He says he’s been in business for 56 years and this is the first time a grave marker has been repossessed. He said he blames himself. Shoaf said he placed the marker at the grave without full payment, out of sympathy for the family’s grieving. “This could ruin my reputation. Hopefully, we can get this resolved, even if I take a loss on it.”
The problem, from Shoaf’s perspective, is that Wayne Leatherman ordered and paid in full for one grave marker, then Crystal Leatherman came into his office and requested more than a dozen changes. Those changes added 400 pounds to the size of the marker and $2,500 in additional costs, Shoaf said.
“I told (Wayne) I would take it up if they didn’t pay. I was told: ‘Go ahead.’ They probably owe less than $1,000 on it.”
Wayne and Crystal Leatherman told WBTV they didn’t know about the additional costs, however. And if they had known, they would have paid, it was reported.
“If I would have owed him the money I would have paid him,” Crystal Leatherman told WBTV. “This is not something you argue over.”
They hired a lawyer and are looking at using another monument company for a permanent fixture at their son’s grave, WBTV reported.
Shoaf says mediation could resolve the matter more quickly. “I would hope we can find a way to meet in the middle,” he said.
Response to news of the grave marker repossession on social media has included both outrage at Shoaf and support for him. Some people have suggested he should have taken the couple to court, rather than taking the monument.
“Did I read this correctly?” asked Arlene Payne of Charlotte on Facebook. “How can anyone have the guts to repossess a grave stone? A CHILD’S gravestone?’
“What did it solve?” asked Joanie Scarbrough Slusser of Dallas, N.C., on Facebook. “File a judgment, take it to court. But to rip the headstone away is terrible business.”
Among those supporting Shoaf was Steven Hall, who wrote: “That's the problem with so many people. Somehow, they developed the notion that things in life are free. Funeral homes are not a charity, it’s a business. Emphasize the word business. Death is unavoidable, shocking, sad and as painful as it may be, it is no one else’s responsible to pay for your plot, funeral or headstone.”