Hearse with veteran's flag-draped coffin left in parking lot outside Pasco Dunkin' Donuts

The hearse with the body of Army veteran Jesse Coleman is shown outside a Dunkin’ Donuts shop in New Port Richey. For more on the story, visit
The hearse with the body of Army veteran Jesse Coleman is shown outside a Dunkin’ Donuts shop in New Port Richey. For more on the story, visit
Published May 14, 2015

NEW PORT RICHEY — The route the hearse took to retired Lt. Col. Jesse Coleman's funeral wasn't supposed to include a doughnut shop detour.

But it did, leaving Coleman's grieving widow even more heartsick and the two men in charge of transporting the body unemployed.

Around 7:30 a.m. Tuesday, Rob Carpenter was in a Dunkin' Donuts on U.S. 19 with his daughter, making their regular morning breakfast stop. He saw a hearse in the parking lot and inside, Carpenter said, he could see a flag-draped casket.

The son of a World War II Navy veteran, Carpenter approached the driver's side of the hearse and knocked on the window.

"Is that a body in there?" Carpenter said he asked the driver, who told him it was. "So you have a soldier in your hearse and you stop for doughnuts?"

The driver didn't answer. But that's when the other man transporting the body arrived, carrying coffee and a bag of doughnuts, Carpenter said.

Carpenter, a former firefighter and emergency medical responder, recorded a video and snapped a photo. The picture made its way to a group called Veteran's Warriors, which posted the image on Facebook.

"That'd be like me, with a patient in the back, stopping at Walmart to get coffee," Carpenter said pointedly.

Coleman's widow, Dora Coleman, said she found out about the incident on the news.

"I was devastated," Coleman said by phone Wednesday. "I was hurt and shocked and I'm still hurt and shocked by it. That's my reaction. I don't think he deserved to be on display like that. And I think it was careless and thoughtless of the drivers."

Though she was distraught, Coleman tried to give the hearse drivers the benefit of the doubt. She speculated that perhaps they stopped to go to the bathroom and only then decided to buy food.

But Jim Rudolph, president of Veterans Funeral Care, the Clearwater-based funeral home handling the arrangements, said the drivers didn't stop to use the bathroom.

After hearing about the incident, Rudolph fired them.

"This isn't a game for us," he said. "We're good at what we do. … This can't happen."

His hearse drivers transport caskets all over, Rudolph said, and sometimes they have to stop for gas, food, bathroom breaks, or even a night in a hotel. But protocol states the casket should be covered in a protective covering, and the flag doesn't go on until the ceremony. Certainly, Rudolph said, the hearse's curtains should be closed.

"But that's not what happened," Rudolph said. "The curtains were open. We had a flag on that casket. It was onstage. And they weren't going to the bathroom, they were buying doughnuts."

He said the error wasn't the norm for the drivers, whom Rudolph said were otherwise good employees. "These guys were standup guys, and they just made a bad call."

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Dora and Jesse Coleman had been married for 54 years and have two children. They met at Kenner Army Hospital in Fort Lee, Va., when he was a soldier and she was a nurse.

According to the funeral home's website, Jesse Coleman, 84, of Beverly Hills, Fla., died Friday. He was a decorated soldier, Dora Coleman said, commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army in 1955 in the Quartermaster Corps. He served one tour in Korea and two tours in Vietnam.

Times staff writer C.T. Bowen contributed to this report. Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or Follow @josh_solomon15.