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Past inspections failed to uncover Cantrell Funeral Home's secrets

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News
This ceiling space is where the remains of 11 infants were found hidden inside the former Cantrell Funeral Home on Saturday October 13, 2018.

Detroit — State inspectors were led to Cantrell Funeral Home in Detroit numerous times in the past, but it wasn't until they received a tip and discovered a trap door to the basement and a hidden attic entrance in a closet, they said Thursday, that they uncovered a macabre scene of infant remains amid trash and stench.  

Oct. 12 wasn't the first visit by state inspectors, it was merely one of the most recent. Previous inspectors found a baby, who died in 1997, had remained unclaimed by the family with a balance due. The funeral home would not bury the baby, the state said.

More:Detroit police find 63 fetuses in boxes, freezers of funeral home

More recently, an anonymous call led to an inspection on Aug. 29, where they found fetal remains in the basement. They did not further search the former funeral home because they thought "the caller had embellished" and it was only until the place was cleaned out in October were they able to locate the additional bodies, said Julia Dale, LARA's Director of the Bureau of Corporations, Securities & Commercial Licensing.

After LARA received another anonymous tip, this time a typed letter, in October, state inspectors returned last week to the closed funeral home at 10400 Mack, where the remains of 10 fetuses and an infant were found, said Dale.

The October letter was the second tip LARA had received. The first was from an anonymous caller on Aug. 28, who reported that corpses were hidden throughout Cantrell. 

Four LARA inspectors, along with Michigan State Police, went to the site on Aug. 29 and inspected the facility, Dale said. There was no power at the building, which left them to inspect the 17,349-square-foot building with flashlights, Dale said. 

They entered a closet, where the 11 infants would be found on Oct. 12, but only discovered a ladder leading to four apartments in the attic and a trap door leading to the basement. The bodies of the babies went unnoticed.

"This building is multiple buildings conjoined with multiple floors," Dale said Thursday. "We went into the closet area and where the attic door was, there were ceiling tiles covering it, beneath that, there was a trap door. We inspected everything."

Dale said when they uncovered the trap door to the basement, they didn't enter because of the stench of chemicals. They found another entrance to the basement, which was filled with trash. In the basement, they found an office desk with a box labeled with fetal remains.

"The other portion of the basement was filled with papers. You couldn't walk across the entirety of it. Stuff up to my knees," Dale said. "There was a bucket of embalming fluids and blood. There was no power and we searched through with it with flashlights. We did go through every portion of the building."

LARA returned on Oct. 12 after receiving the anonymous letter detailing where to find other unattended bodies. The 11 infant remains were found stashed in the closet crawlspace hidden between the first and second floor, hidden by insulation. Nine were in a cardboard box and two were in a small white casket, individually wrapped; others were embalmed and some were mummified, said Naveed Syed, the building's new owner as of September.

More: Video: Inside the former Cantrell Funeral Home building

Days later, Syed's construction workers found the cremated remains of four people in the basement, one of which dated back to 1996, he said. 

"Friday, when we were there, state police provided a cadaver dog and it went through the entire facility… they don’t detect cremains," Dale said, referring to ashes from cremations. 

The state's investigation into the east-side funeral home began in April, after investigators found two embalmed bodies, left in caskets in the garage since the end of 2017. A third body also was found, held by Cantrell from January to April while families paid for the services, LARA said. 

That same inspection also revealed "more than 20 bodies awaiting final disposition," including two that were covered in mold, according to LARA's timeline of events. 

Also found were 269 containers of cremated remains. Of the 269 containers, "52 of them were unidentifiable," and only four have since been retrieved by families. 

The state transferred the remains to Preferred Removal Services, to be claimed by next-of-kin.

Dale would not comment on the investigation, including criminal charges or if they had been in contact with the funeral home owner, Raymond Cantrell II. She said charges could depend on the age of the infants found. They are awaiting autopsy reports from the Wayne County Medical Examiner's Office, which said it may take "weeks or months." 

"We don’t know who, at this point, put the fetal remains there," said Dale, who said one of the babies looked at least a month old. "We are looking as we wait for the medical examiner's report to determine when they were born. That type of information is necessary to understand who was in control."

The south entrance of the former Cantrell Funeral Home along Mack Avenue is seen on Saturday October 13, 2018. The remains of 11 infants were found hidden in a ceiling compartment inside .

Past history

Dale said the former funeral home has "a history of complaints," and state inspectors had visited the funeral home numerous times over the past two decades.

Following is LARA's timeline involving Cantrell from October 1985 to October 2018:

• In October 1985, Raymond Emanuel Cantrell Sr. obtained his mortuary license and the Cantrell Funeral Home was licensed. That next month, Raymond E. Cantrell II obtained his mortuary license. It would expire on Halloween 2003 due to nonrenewal.

• From August 1987 to February 2017, the senior Cantrell was designated as its manager, despite having died in October 2016.

• In September 1996, fine issued against Cantrell Funeral Home's prepaid registration

• In August 1999, a $1,500 fine imposed against the funeral home based on a complaint alleging unlicensed individuals were performing embalming services. 

• In May 2000, LARA issued a final order against Raymond Cantrell II, with $1,000 fine imposed and paid in August 2000. Complaint alleged failure to timely embalm a body, incompetence and gross negligence.

• In September 2000, inspection of Cantrell Funeral Home performed based on a statement of complaint. Eleven bodies found housed off of the preparation room, including one infant.

• in October 2001, re-inspection of Cantrell Funeral Home. Ten of 11 bodies were buried, but 11th body, a baby who died in 1997, remained unclaimed by the family with a balance due. Funeral home would not bury the baby. An advisory letter was issued regarding poor condition of preparation room.

• in July 2002, Raymond Cantrell II’s mortuary science license was placed on probation, he was fined $6,000, and required to make restitution of $41,456.12. Fine not collected from Treasury until January 2017. His license was suspended until August 2017.

• In October 2014, $10,000 fine imposed against Cantrell Funeral Home Inc., based on a complaint alleging unlicensed activity of individuals working at the establishment, which was resolved by a settlement.

• From February 2017 until April 2018, the funeral home's designated manager was Jameca Lajoyce Boone, who obtained her mortuary science license in October 1995. 

• In September 2017, the funeral home's registration lapsed "due to non-renewal," the state said. That November, investigators from LARA'S Bureau of Corporations, Securities and Commercial Licensing claim they were denied access to the funeral home by Cantrell II. They had arrived to conduct an inspection related to a complaint. An investigator returned the next month and was allowed to conduct an inspection, during which the peeled paint in its embalming rooms and a large water stain on the facility's back wall were noted.

• A visit Feb. 14 found the same issues, along with a dirty floor in the embalming room and "stained protective gear" hanging up.

• On April 10, the bureau inspected the funeral home again, finding "two embalmed bodies in caskets in the garage of the facility." They'd been there since November and December, respectively. A third body, which had been at the funeral home since Jan. 9 through April 17, remained at the facility as the decedent's next-of-kin waited for insurance money to come through. When the money wasn't enough for a funeral, the body was cremated. 

• On April 25, the funeral home's mortuary science license was suspended, as well as that of manager Boone, " ... based on incompetence and gross negligence, improperly stored bodies, poor conditions in the embalming room, and prepaid funeral contract funds not placed in escrow, constituting fraud, deceit, or dishonesty and incompetence," LARA said.

An inspection revealed "more than 20 bodies awaiting final disposition," including two that were covered in mold. 

• A March audit found that that funeral home "failed to deposit" more than $21,500 for 13 contracts for prepaid funeral work. LARA also found that after the funeral home's registration under the Prepaid Act lapsed in September 2017, Cantrell "failed to reassign its prepaid contracts or refund the funds."

• On Aug. 28, LARA heard from an "anonymous caller" that "corpses were hidden throughout" the funeral home.  The next day, after reaching out to the office of Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, an inspection and found "a stillborn corpse in a box atop a table," one that wasn't found in August, along with "one set (of) cremated remains."

The bureau reunited the baby's mother with the remains, which are now buried at Mt. Olivet Cemetery on Detroit's east side.

• On Oct. 12, the bureau received a "statement of complaint" by U.S. mailed letter which "gave explicit instructions as to how to locate the infant corpses within the building."

The owner of the building, Naveed Syed, gave the bureau access to the vacant building, which was without power, just before 5 p.m.

During its inspection, the bureau "discovered a cardboard box and an infant-sized casket" between the ceiling of the first floor and the second floor, "hidden by insulation."

Once the remains were found, the bureau called Detroit Police Department. 

The bureau then "worked with industry representatives" to transfer the infant remains to Mt. Olivet, after next-of-kin are notified.

• On Monday, Syed contacted the bureau again to inform it that while cleaning the basement, a "container of human cremains" was found. The Chas Verheyden Funeral Home in Grosse Pointe Park took possession.

• Tuesday, another container was found. It will be handled by the Verheyden Funeral Home. 

• On Wednesday, Syed contacted the bureau again. This time, "another container or two" of cremains were found. Those, too, will be handled by Verheyden. 

Members of the mortuary profession have called the discoveries "egregious" and "unjustifiable."