HICKORY, N.C. – Mud and a plywood slab sit over the spot where a 5-year-old boy was laid to rest after a financial dispute ended in his grave marker being repossessed.
Jake Leatherman lost his battle with leukemia in the fall of 2016. When his parents recently went to visit his grave in a Hickory cemetery, they discovered the marker was missing. It now sits in a warehouse at the Southeastern Monument Company.
“Hindsight says that was the wrong thing to have done,” said Reverend J.C. Shoaf, who owns the monument company.
Reverend Shoaf said he and the family have been in a financial battle for a while.
The family originally ordered a smaller, simpler marker. The next day, they wanted an upgrade, which costs more. Shoaf showed NBC Charlotte the actual invoice for the new marker. He said the family still owes $918 for the monument.
He says, despite phone calls, multiple messages, and promises of payment being delivered, the outstanding balance was never paid. Shoaf said he was conflicted about what to do for a while, but eventually, when he couldn't collect payment, he decided to collect the marker.
“You’ve got to pay your bills, and a company can’t keep on giving away markers, giving away markers, and pay your bills and stay in business,” he said.
Shoaf now says he wishes he had never taken back the grave marker. The story of his decision has gone national, and most of the feedback has not been positive.
“It’s been torment,” Shoaf lamented. “We’ve been threatened on the telephone, harassing phone calls.”
Shoaf said he knows a thing or two about grief.
“I lost a child too, I know what it is to lose a child,” he said.
The decision was business, not personal, he said, but he understands there’s nothing more personal than the place a family grieves their lost child. Shoaf said he’d like to return the grave marker but he can’t bring it back until the family and cemetery OK it. He’s hoping they will contact him so they can work it all out.
“I would never pick that thing up, not at all. I would mark the debt in full and forget it,” Shoaf said.
NBC Charlotte attempted to contact the Leatherman family to see if they would like to accept the grave marker and the apology but we have not heard back.