Coroner hopes Joplin woman will agree to legal disposition of husband's body

 Barbara Watters remains as resolved as ever regarding the disposition of her husband’s body despite a federal judge’s dismissal of her lawsuit against Joplin police and the Jasper County coroner.

“I’m not done,” Watters told the Globe in a recent telephone interview. “They think they got away with something. But I’m not done.”

Watters, 68, was arrested a year ago and charged with abandonment of a corpse when police discovered she was keeping her deceased husband’s body in a freezer in a bedroom of her home on Vermont Avenue in Joplin. The charge was dismissed in January by Associate Judge Joe Hensley, who reasoned that she had not actually “abandoned” her husband’s corpse as prohibited by law but merely sought to “preserve” it and keep him close to her.

An autopsy determined that the 71-year-old Paul Barton died of natural causes. Watters says he suffered from a rare form of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Joplin police believe he may have died as long ago as December 2018 and that Watters kept his body in the freezer for almost a year.

Watters claims she did so to keep a doctor from gaining access to his organs and tissue for medical studies. She has said that was a fear she and her husband shared prior to his death.

“He told me to buy a freezer and to put him in it, so he could not be dug up,” she reiterated in the latest interview.

Following the resolution of her criminal case, Watters filed a lawsuit against the city and its police department, as well as Coroner Rob Chappel, seeking the return of her husband’s body, the freezer and various documents she says were taken by police when they served a search warrant on her home in November 2019.

The lawsuit was removed to federal court, where a judge issued an order Nov. 2 dismissing the case after she did not respond to court orders issued Sept. 21 and Oct. 6 regarding pretrial efforts to reach a resolution. Watters told the Globe that she never received those orders.

The Jasper County coroner’s office has been keeping Barton’s body in refrigeration the past year. Coroner Rob Chappel admits that’s an unusually long time for a body to be kept in refrigeration.

“But, due to the circumstances, there’s been no choice,” Chappel said.

He said the attorney for the county’s insurance company sent a letter last week apprising him that Watters’ lawsuit had been dismissed. The coroner hopes to meet with the attorney soon to discuss what his office should do next, but the attorney has been sick in recent days.

Chappel said he would like to get the matter resolved.

“We want to honor (Paul Barton),” he said. “We would like to honor (Barbara Watters) as well — but within the parameters of the law.”

He said state law requires one of three options for final disposition: burial, cremation or anatomical donation for medical science. He said keeping a loved one’s body in a freezer in your home “is not considered final disposition as I interpret the law.”

Watters would not say what her exact intentions are if the body is returned to her.

The closest she came to expressing her intentions was this statement: “They cannot require my husband be buried. They cannot require that he be cremated and they cannot require that his body be made an anatomical gift.”

She, in fact, expressed doubts to the Globe that Chappel still has her husband’s body. She fears he may already have been “sliced up into tissue samples.”

Chappel said those fears are baseless and could be easily relieved if she would agree to a legally acceptable form of final disposition.

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