Monument company owner apologizes, restores boy’s grave marker that he repossessed

A 5-year-old Hickory boy who died of leukemia last year had his grave marker repossessed in a financial tug-of-war between his parents and a North Carolina monument company.

But on Tuesday, a day after the situation was widely publicized, the owner of the company had a change of heart and said he would replace the marker at no expense to the family, Observer news partner WBTV reported.

The boy, Jake Leatherman, made national news last November when dozens of NASCAR drivers and crew members 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 said they discovered their son’s grave marker was missing from Woodlawn Memorial Garden in Hickory on Oct. 9. In its place was a hole full of mud.

“He repossessed it, like it was a car,” Crystal Leatherman told WBTV Monday. “This is my lowest point.”

Wayne Leatherman said Tuesday that he couldn’t visit the grave site now, because it’s too upsetting.

“Disbelief? Anger? I don’t know how to put this into words,” he said. “I had a hard time going to the grave anyway, but now there’s a hole there. It’s just wrong.”

The monument was removed after a month-long dispute over money, said the Rev. J.C. Shoaf, who runs Southeastern Monument company. Shoaf, who is also a Baptist minister, told the Observer he was 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.

Shoaf said he placed the marker at the grave without full payment, out of sympathy for the family’s grieving, but later regretted it. “This could ruin my reputation. Hopefully, we can get this resolved, even if I take a loss on it.”

On Tuesday, he offered an apology and said that the marker would be returned. “We waive all expenses from the Leatherman family,” he told WBTV. “If there are charges to be paid to the cemetery to have this reinstalled, we will pay all expenses for doing that. … In hindsight, it was a big mistake to have the cemetery remove it, we see it now, but we do offer the family our condolence and forgiveness … we hope they forgive us. It has hurt everybody involved, and we hope they have it in their heart to forgive us for it. Our prayers are with the family, and we hope we can be friends down the road.”

Shoaf had said earlier that Wayne Leatherman paid for one grave marker, then Crystal Leatherman came in and requested more than a dozen changes that added 400 pounds to the size of the marker and $2,500 in additional costs. The added costs were never paid, he said.

Wayne Leatherman said he and his wife were never told the changes would add to the cost.

Response on social media to the story has included both outrage at Shoaf and support for him.

“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.”