Leychawne Johns says people in Chester know him as “the funeral guy."
"I was in embalming, making everybody look good,” he said.
Growing up in a tough housing project near the waterfront, he began learning the business at 13, working as a helper, washing cars, and cleaning up at the funeral home owned by then-Mayor Willie Mae James Leake.
The mayor had selected him from among students in a summer jobs program at Showalter Middle School. She helped him apply to mortuary school and get his funeral trainee license.
Over the next three decades, he worked as a laborer, sold drugs, and bounced from funeral home to funeral home, among them Baker Funeral Home on North Broad Street, a Philadelphia institution.
And when Baker — which buried up to 600 people a year in its 1980s heyday — closed its doors in September 2017 over failure to file tax returns, Johns employed his entrepreneurial spirit yet again.
He took over one of his former employer’s greatest assets: the phone number 215-763-5590.
Johns, whose trainee license was revoked in May, said he bought the number from owner Vince Baker for $80,000 and used it for more than six months to act as a broker, pairing families of the deceased with funeral homes.
“When I answer, I don’t say ‘Baker Funeral Home,'" Johns said. "I just say hello. I ask if they’re calling about a death. If they say yes, I tell them Baker Funeral Home is no longer in business. Then I tell them I can refer them to someone else.”
But in a narrative resembling The Sopranos with a little Six Feet Under, Vince Baker said that Johns hijacked the number, hasn’t paid him a dime for it, and is pretending to be Baker’s son “Sean.” Baker said he has no son named Sean.
A group of funeral home directors has issued a statement calling Johns a fraud.
And last week, two days after Johns answered that phone number several times during an interview, he was jailed at the Chester County Prison after being sentenced to 10 to 23 months on unrelated charges of insurance fraud, said Stephen A. Durham, one of Johns’ lawyers.
Baker said the number, “once PO 3-5590 for Poplar, before they changed it to 763-5590,” is 89 years old. And he wants it back.
‘The whole city of Philadelphia ... are against me’
How the phone number made its way to Johns depends on whom you ask.
Baker, whose grandfather started the mortuary in 1929, said he arranged last spring with funeral home director Albert LaBricciosa, who had partnered with Johns at Johns Funeral Services in Chester, to have the number forwarded to the two men, because Baker’s business had been shuttered for tax problems that began when his now-deceased father ran the business more than 20 years ago.
Jack Bernard, another lawyer for Johns who was at that meeting, said Johns, “to the best of my knowledge,” acquired the phone number legally. Johns said he had paid Baker “$20,000 here and $20,000 there.” LaBricciosa declined to comment for this story.
Baker, however, said the deal with LaBricciosa and Johns fell apart in April after the State Board of Funeral Directors announced it would revoke Johns' trainee license. Then, about six months ago, Baker said, he heard from a woman who had contracted with Johns after having called the Baker number. She said Johns showed up at her house claiming he was Sean Baker and clumsily handled her husband’s body after another funeral worker couldn’t move it on his own.
Baker has since filed a criminal complaint against Johns.
A spokesperson for Verizon wouldn’t comment on individual customers' accounts but said the company "has a process to ensure that the movement of a phone number from one customer to another is legitimate and agreed upon between the parties.”
BKG Funeral Home in Philadelphia is one of the homes to which Johns said he funneled clients. But when reached on the phone, the owner disavowed an association with Johns. (It is illegal under state law for funeral home directors to pay a commission or agree to pay one to anyone securing business for them, said Wanda Murren, a Pa. Department of State spokeswoman.)
The day after Johns, 44, went to jail, the Quaker State Funeral Home Directors Association, a group comprising mainly African American funeral home directors in the Philadelphia area, issued a statement saying, “Families calling the former funeral home phone line ... are unaware that the individual claiming to be a son of Mr. Vince Baker is actually an unlicensed impostor.”
“The whole city of Philadelphia, all the funeral directors, are against me, and it’s all about this phone number,” Johns said.
'He’s got a gift’
Both friends and enemies describe Johns as having an incredible talent:
“He’s masterful,” Baker said. “He will sell you a screw off of the Brooklyn Bridge."
“He’s got a gift,” said Lewis Hunt-Irving, who is a Chester funeral home director and real estate developer, and Johns’ estranged business partner. “He should be a multimillionaire by now, because he can talk money out of a lot of different people.”
To know the history between Johns and Hunt-Irving is to delve into a litany of lawsuits, countersuits, investigations, and business dealings gone awry.
In 2015, Johns and an associate sought to buy the former Nolan-Fidale Funeral Home on Providence Avenue in Chester. When the associate backed out, having spent some of a loan they received from a retired lawyer, Johns approached Hunt-Irving, his then-employer at Lewis M. Hunt-Irving Funeral Home on Ninth Street, to invest $70,000 and buy the property with him. Hunt-Irving said he liked that it had an indoor crematorium, so the two men formed a limited liability company for the purpose of the purchase.
By that December, things had soured between them. Hunt-Irving accused Johns of extorting $10,000 by fabricating a story that a prominent drug dealer and his family demanded $40,000 from Hunt-Irving’s funeral home because it had lost a relative’s cremains. Eventually, the cremains turned up, and Johns told Hunt-Irving that the family threatened bad publicity because of the delay and wanted $10,000 for pain and suffering. In a lawsuit in which Hunt-Irving claims Johns hired his own relatives to impersonate the family, Johns was ordered to pay back Hunt-Irving.
By March 2016, Johns had put up a “Johns Funeral Services" sign at the Providence Avenue property and had begun to operate. Hunt-Irving called NBC10 to report him as operating unlicensed. Johns, who still had only a trainee license, said he was holding viewings only, which would be legal, and embalming took place at licensed funeral homes. He said Hunt-Irving was jealous.
“I had four bodies. and he didn’t have any bodies,” Johns said.
By October 2016, Hunt-Irving had evicted Johns from the apartment over the Providence property for failure to pay the $500 monthly rent. Hunt-Irving took over the funeral home and moved his operation there from his modest Ninth Street site.
In the meantime, the NBC10 story triggered an investigation by the State Board of Funeral Directors at the same time that Johns filed a lawsuit against Hunt-Irving and NBC10, charging defamation. Before the investigation concluded in April, and Johns was ordered to pay a $40,000 fine and to cease acting as a funeral home director, Hunt-Irving had filed an injunction in Delaware County to stop Johns from operating unlicensed.
Later this year, another complaint to the funeral board was filed by Arthur Bacon Jr., who accused Johns of cremating his father without permission and withholding his ashes until he paid $1,500. When Bacon finally cobbled together the money, in late September, he went to the funeral home and saw that Hunt-Irving had taken over — and nobody knew where the cremains were.
“I want my dad’s remains so I can take them and bury them with my mom," Bacon said. "That’s what he wanted, to be buried with my mom.”
State law maintains that a funeral home can’t withhold a body or remains for payment. For his part, Johns blamed the loss on Hunt-Irving for evicting him.
"If you lock me out of my house and I can’t get back in, and the last time I saw something, it was on my table, and now, nobody can find it, who’s responsible?” asked Durham, Johns' lawyer. “Was it me, because I had it last? Or was it you, because you locked me out and now it’s gone?”
Johns' most recent conviction involved a car insurance scheme in which he helped people submit claims for accidents. Johns pleaded guilty to a number of charges, including false insurance claims and forgery.
Hunt-Irving doesn’t have a blemish-free past, either: He served 90 days in jail and was ordered to pay more than $200,000 for Medicaid fraud in 1997 for a dental practice.
‘Not a perfect individual’
Johns grew up in the now-razed Lamokin Village housing project, which most people used to call LMV.
“But we called it GMC for ‘Getting Money Constantly,’ because that’s what we were about,” he said.
When he set up his own funeral home, he was proud, he said. So were his five children. And he blames Hunt-Irving for taking it away from him.
“He cleaned out my funeral home — and threw away a dead person," Johns said. “My last name was up there [on the funeral home]. ... He knocked that pride out of my children.”
Durham, his lawyer, says Johns is not perfect, but he doesn’t believe he has broken the law.
Baker, in the meantime, has hired his own attorneys to look into how Verizon authorized the phone transfer. “It’s a big mess, and it’s not over yet.”