Modesto funeral home under criminal investigation

05/20/2013 12:53 PM

06/26/2013 2:32 PM

Stanislaus County sheriff's detectives have launched a criminal investigation into a Modesto funeral home that lost its right to cremate or bury bodies.

Sgt. Anthony Bejaran confirmed Monday that the Sheriff's Department, in conjunction with the district attorney's office, is looking into the operators of McGuire Cremation and Funeral Services. State regulators have received complaints from unhappy families who couldn't get answers as to the whereabouts of their loved ones' remains.

Families mourning lost members said the episode adds more pain to an already difficult time.

In the meantime, a picture is emerging of a business undergoing financial difficulties that apparently led to major ethical lapses.

Friday, deputies removed 17 bodies from the downtown Modesto funeral home amid complaints from family members about delays in cremation and the return of remains. Bejaran said Monday that the decedents ranged in age from 40 to 80.

Earlier this month, Stanislaus County health officials stopped issuing cremation and burial permits to McGuire, which has been in business since 2009.

McGuire representatives have not returned phone calls or answered the door for comment.

Clay Guzman, cemetery and crematory manager for Ceres Memorial Park, said he couldn't speak about specific complaints with McGuire because of client privacy concerns, but he confirmed dropping a contract for services with the funeral home because of financial problems.

Guzman said he had received complaints from families wondering why the decedents hadn't been cremated yet. "We've had numerous families calling us about their loved ones, but we didn't have the bodies," he said. He said the problems with McGuire began last year and "progressed."

Families made to wait

Family members became so frustrated with the delays that they came to the crematorium and picked up the ashes themselves, rather than wait for the funeral home.

"It's very highly unusual," said Guzman, who's been in the industry since 1988. Other funeral serv-ice officials confirmed that it generally takes no more than a week for remains to be cremated and delivered to families.

Guzman said his staff recommended that family members file a complaint with the state Cemetery and Funeral Board.

Monica Vargas, information officer for the Department of Consumer Affairs, which oversees the board, said she could not speak to what complaints, if any, have been lodged. "The only time anything becomes public is when there is a state action taken against licensing," she said.

A check of the board's website showed that the license for McGuire is "clear" and that no disciplinary actions have been taken.

The board investigates each complaint brought before it.

Corinne Robinson of Salida said her family had problems getting remains back from McGuire but didn't know if the wait was unusual.

Robinson's son, Jared, died of testicular cancer at the age of 27 in February. At the recommendation of a cousin, the family used McGuire. And it used the funeral home again three weeks later when Robinson's sister, Daleann Sgambati, died.

It wasn't until they went to make arrangements for Sgambati that the family got Jared Robinson's remains back. And it was an equally long wait for Sgambati's ashes. More than a year later, the family still is waiting for death certificates in both cases, though it has paid for copies.

Jared Robinson was autistic and didn't complain about pain. By the time he was diagnosed, the cancer had progressed to stage four and he died a few weeks later.

Corrine Robinson said her son had a limited mental capacity.

"He had a couple of his toys — stuffed animals he had — cremated with him," she said. The family had a memorial service before Jared's remains were returned to them. "To have my son's body sitting there for 21 days or so ... ."

Michael Eaton, who owns Modesto's Eaton Family Funeral, said he had heard complaints about McGuire for months.

"We knew that they had financial issues and problems," he said. Eaton recounted episodes in which McGuire clients called his business asking how long it was supposed to take to get remains returned, and one incident in which a McGuire hearse got into a car accident in Southern California.

"Instead of calling a transport company or a van, they called a tow truck," Eaton said. "And that's how they took the body to the cemetery."

Red flags slowly emerge

Deputy coroner Tom Killian said his office has been looking into McGuire for several weeks. "Prior to the first of the year, we were not having any problems with McGuire's," he said.

The funeral home's former landlord, Jeff Diehl, said the business didn't owe him any money when it moved into its 12th Street location.

"But we started slowly seeing some things that started putting some red flags up," Killian said.

That included complaints from family members about how long it was taking to get the remains of their loved ones. County officials said the funeral home wasn't completing its permits in a timely manner.

The front of the funeral home itself lends to questions about the business. A sign advertises a thrift store coming soon. Ruben Gonzales, the owner of Thrift Emporium in the 1101 Seventh St. building, said McGuire took up a corner on the northeast side and had space at the back with a double door entrance on the K street side. Gonzales, who's working toward opening Thrift Emporium by perhaps next week, said people had been showing up asking about deceased relatives. McGuire left a stack of business cards to hand out to them and media, Gonzales said.

Friday's action to remove the bodies from the funeral home was "very unprecedented," said Killian, a 30-year member of law enforcement who had a career with the California Highway Patrol before joining the coroner's office.

Coroner's staff brought out a trailer purchased with a Homeland Security grant a couple of years ago for Friday's operation. The refrigerated trailer holds up to 24 bodies.

Killian said at the funeral home, the bodies were "stored as required by law in a refrigerated unit" but not in a manner he considered adequate. He did not want to elaborate out of consideration for the affected families.

Mike Nicodemus, vice president of cremation services for the National Funeral Directors Association, called 17 bodies "a tremendous amount to have at the funeral home at one time," particularly in a smaller, family-run operation.

He said the funeral home he runs occasionally has that many bodies, "but we're the largest funeral home in the Commonwealth of Virginia."

Nicodemus said cremations generally take two to six days. "Even on the long side of it, it would take no more than a week," he said.

Funeral homes come to rescue

Jeremy Berntzen got tired of waiting. His mother's body had been at McGuire since April 21, and he said he kept getting excuses as to why it had not been cremated. He finally called Eaton, whose staff picked up Berntzen's mother that day.

"I signed the paperwork around 11 a.m. on Tuesday, and they had her cremated by about 2 p.m. the next day," Berntzen said.

He said he asked the staff at the county's vital statistics department to lodge a complaint with the state. Killian said other people had done the same thing.

In the meantime, after news of the investigation broke Friday, several area funeral homes contacted the county with offers of help. That's the silver lining in a situation in which grief-stricken families are suffering yet more, Killian said.

"They all contacted us, wanting to assist these other families," he said.

Bay Area Cremation, the Stockton crematorium the county contracts with for indigent cremation services, offered to process the bodies at no charge to the families or the county.

"We want to make sure the public knows there are no concerns in our office about any other funeral homes or establishments in our county," Killian said. "They all do the job that their professional oath holds them to ... and treat the families with dignity and compassion."

Paul Garcia can attest to that. He went to McGuire after his mother, Virginia Ruckman, died suddenly April 16. "I had to go pick a funeral person," Garcia said. "I'd never done so before."

He found McGuire online — the website offers affordable, dignified services starting at $440 — and arranged for the funeral home to pick up the body from the coroner's office. He paid $300; family members added more, for a total of $866. But soon, coroner's officials started to call, wondering why the body was still there.

"I was just terrified they were going to get rid of my mom," Garcia said. It became clear through the questions that Garcia was getting from deputies that there was a problem with McGuire.

Garcia said he got several excuses from McGuire, then couldn't reach him at all. "I had to have other people call him, so it would be a different phone number."

During one of the phone calls from deputies, Eaton happened to be at the coroner's office and heard a bit about what was happening. He asked a deputy to call Garcia back and offered to take care of everything.

Desperate, Garcia transferred authorization to Eaton, who had his mother cremated immediately.

"He just came in and saved me," Garcia said.

Once it was over, Garcia called Eaton and tried to pay him. "He said, 'No, sir, that was a gift. You don't owe me anything. This is not typical of my profession. This is not how you treat families,' " Garcia said. "I was trying to hold it together on the phone."

Bee senior information specialist Karen Aiello and Bee photographer Debbie Noda contributed to this report.

Breaking News Editor Patty Guerra can be reached at pguerra@modbee.com or (209) 578-2343.

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