Police probe funeral home where 11 infant bodies found

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — Detroit police on Monday launched a criminal investigation into a funeral home where state inspectors last week discovered the bodies of 11 babies — 10 of which were fetuses — hidden above a false ceiling.

Detroit police Chief James Craig said some of the fetuses likely were in the attic of the Cantrell Funeral Home since October 2017.

"We don't know how the funeral home came in possession (of the fetuses)," Craig said during a press briefing Monday afternoon at police headquarters. "It's all speculation at this point."

One challenge facing investigators, Craig said, is to determine the identity of the fetuses.

"Fortunately, some of the fetuses were marked (with dates); that might help us with our investigative efforts," Craig said. "Others will be a challenge."

Craig said he isn't sure if the dates indicate when the fetuses arrived at the funeral home.

"We're very early into our investigation," he said. "I did have a telephone conversation with the Attorney General's Office to understand their role. I've also talked with the Wayne County prosecutor, and will again shortly."

The chief said he'll likely seek charges of failing to properly supervise the proper disposition of a dead human body in excess of 180 days.

"It's an allegation right now," Craig said. "The criminal statute, which is a felony, is any time (a body is held beyond) 180 days, it's a felony. Under 180 days makes it a misdemeanor."

Craig called the case "deeply troubling."

"In my 41-and-a-half years (in law enforcement), I have never seen such a case," he said. "You can’t explain it. It makes no sense."

Naveed Syed, owner of the building that once housed the Cantrell Funeral Home, shows the location where the remains of 11 infants were found hidden in a ceiling compartment.

State authorities received an anonymous letter in the mail Friday that there were 11 infants' bodies hidden in the funeral home. The facility had been shut down in April after state investigators found deplorable conditions, including decomposed bodies covered in mold.

Craig said state inspectors found 21 bodies during their April visit to the facility. 

Inspectors from the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs uncovered the remains Friday. Detroit police aided in the search, Craig said.

"The fetuses were in a cardboard box in the attic; the baby that was full-term was in a little makeshift coffin," he said.

Craig said the officers who aided in the search have been offered counseling by the Detroit Police Peer Support Group, which allows officers a chance to meet with fellow cops to discuss the stresses they deal with on and off the job.

"What those officers saw was horrific," Craig said. "So I had peer support reach out to them."

Friday's search followed an anonymous tip state authorities received in August that there were bodies still in the funeral home that inspectors had missed in April, Craig said. 

"When the inspectors went back in August, they found a fetus and a cremated adult body," Craig said.

State investigators missed the 11 infants' bodies during their April and August inspections because they were hidden above a false ceiling compartment, the chief said.

Craig said Detroit police are handling the criminal investigation, while LARA was using the state Attorney General's office to investigate a civil probe.

Andrea Bitely, spokeswoman for the Attorney General's office, confirmed Monday the agency was investigating the matter.

"We are working with our local and state partners to determine what happened at the Cantrell Funeral Home," Bitely said in an email.

Michigan law requires stillborn babies to be reported to the state registrar within five days of delivery.

Craig said he has contacted Wayne County prosecutors and the Wayne County Medical Examiner about the case. 

Former funeral home owner Raymond Cantrell II, who lives in Alabama, has not responded to phone calls seeking comment.

Cantrell and the funeral home have been beset with problems in recent years, including tax issues and multiple lawsuits filed against it.

Earlier this year, the facility was foreclosed for $82,907.28 in back taxes. It was sold last month at auction for $85,000 to Naveed Syed, CEO of Quality Behavioral Health Services, a nonprofit addiction treatment center and counseling service, according to the Wayne County Treasurer's Office.

Three sisters in June filed a lawsuit against the funeral home after their mother's remains were found at the facility following the April state inspection. 

Tamika, Shandanique and Tanisha Jordan said in the suit, filed in Wayne Circuit Court, that their mother, Marcia Jordan, died March 17, 2018, at age 62. They hired Cantrell Funeral Home to handle the arrangements, "including removal of body, printing of obituaries, embalming, family hour, casket, cemetery, transportation and burial, as well as other things," the suit said.

The sisters paid $7,371 for the services, according to the lawsuit. 

On March 19, the sisters ordered a casket, but nine days later, "the day of the viewing service, (the funeral home) informed the Jordans that they did not have the casket," the suit said, adding the sisters had to choose another casket without seeing it. The lawsuit also said the funeral home misspelled their mother's name in the obituary.

The lawsuit further alleges the funeral home held a fake burial.

"Defendants held a service at the cemetery, but did not bury (Marcia Jordan)," the suit said.

"Defendants conducted a procession to the cemetery with a hearse," the lawsuit alleges. "Defendants brought the late Marcia Jordan in a hearse to the cemetery. Defendants conducted a service at the cemetery chapel.

"All that was left was for defendants to place (Marcia Jordan) in her final resting place," the suit said. "Defendants did not bury Ms. Marcia Jordan. Defendants instead brought Ms. Jordan's body back to Cantrell Funeral Home and placed her body in a garage."

A month later, on April 25, the state shut down the funeral home after finding deplorable conditions. The next day, the Jordan sisters "received a call from the State informing them that their mother's body was found in a garage at the funeral home," said the lawsuit, which seeks more than $25,000 in damages.

The sisters have to arrange for another burial. The lawsuit says they have "suffered and continue to suffer great emotional trauma."

The lawsuit alleges wrongful interference with the right of burial, negligent interference with the right of burial, breach of contract and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The sisters' attorney, Yosef C. Klein, declined to comment beyond what was in the lawsuit. Cantrell’s attorney in the lawsuit, Robert E. Packus, also declined to comment.

In another lawsuit, filed in Detroit's 36th District Court in June, J.A.R. Incinerator Services claimed Cantrell failed to pay $20,560 for cremation services.

"(Cantrell) made personal guarantees and other assurances that he would be liable for payment of the services provided as an inducement to (J.A.R.) to continue extending credit," the suit said.

A third lawsuit, also filed in 36th District Court in May, alleges the funeral home owes Trinity Cemetery in Detroit more than $18,000 for burial services.

"(Trinity) has made repeated demands for payment (and the funeral home) failed to make any payments," the lawsuit said, adding that Cantrell wrote "bad checks ... which have bounced and caused (Trinity) to incur bank fees."

(313) 222-2134
Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN

Christine MacDonald contributed.