Funeral home probe of infant remains leaves parents in limbo

George Hunter
The Detroit News
Detroit Police execute a search warrant at Perry Funeral Home in Detroit Friday afternoon, October 19, 2018. "We served a warrant there," Detroit Police Chief James Craig said. "We're looking for evidence of improper disposal of remains or any other improprieties."

Detroit — Divsha Dellihue said old wounds were ripped open when news broke last week that dozens of fetuses were removed from Perry Funeral Home amid an investigation into alleged fraud and the handling of infant remains.

Dellihue of Detroit gave birth in Harper-Hutzel Hospital to Deeana, a stillborn baby girl on May 23, 2017. "When I got the ashes and opened the urn, I told my sister, 'I don't know why, but I have this funny feeling this isn't her.' It was just an instinct," she said.

"Now, after I saw that there were 63 fetuses taken out of (Perry), I'm wondering if one of them is my daughter," she said. "It’s a creepy and a sad feeling. It’s very distressing."

The raid was the latest twist in a widening police probe into two Detroit funeral homes: Perry and Cantrell Funeral Home on Mack. Detroit police are looking into allegations that the two homes mishandled fetuses and infant remains.

As police investigate the case, parents like Dellihue grapple for answers.

"I need to know if one of (the fetuses) was her," she said. "I hope they're able to test those fetuses and find out who they are, because I just don't feel complete right now. It's heartbreaking."

A week after police and state inspectors removed 10 fetuses and a the body of a baby from a ceiling compartment in Cantrell, they raided Perry and found 36 fetuses in a box and 27 more in freezer compartments.

Police also are investigating claims made in a civil lawsuit that Perry's director filed death certificates falsely claiming he'd buried fetuses and infants, and fraudulently billed Medicaid, the Detroit Medical Center and the state for services that weren't performed.

Detroit police Chief James Craig said he invited an FBI agent to a meeting of law enforcement officials Friday to discuss the fraud allegations, which fall under federal jurisdiction. FBI spokeswoman Agent Mara Schneider declined to comment after the meeting that included investigators from the state Attorney General's Office, Wayne County Prosecutors Office and LARA.

Peter J. Parks and Daniel W. Cieslak, the attorneys who brought the lawsuit against Perry and other agencies that handled their clients' daughter's remains, also attended the conference at Detroit police headquarters. 

Perry attorney Joshua I. Arnkoff insisted his client "has not committed any criminal offenses."

"The allegations being made through the press are inaccurate," Arnkoff said Saturday in a written statement. "Perry Funeral Home has conducted itself within the confines of the applicable statutes."

Cantrell owner Raymond Cantrell II has not returned multiple phone calls seeking comment.

The lawsuit against Perry was brought by Rachel Brown and Larry Davis, who thought they were donating the remains of their daughter Alayah Davis to Wayne State's medical school for research when she died 27 minutes after her Dec. 8, 2014, birth in Harper-Hutzel Hospital, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges Alayah's body and 36 others instead were sent to Perry, and then to Wayne State's mortuary school morgue, where they sat unattended for three years. What happened to the remains is unknown.

When Davis saw a news report about the fetuses found at Cantrell, he asked his attorneys to contact police, Craig said. Detectives then met with Parks and Cieslak early last week.

"After we heard what was being charged in the lawsuit, it was enough for us to initiate our own criminal investigation," the chief said, adding the allegations were so widespread he asked for Friday's multi-jurisdictional meeting.

"I thought we might need to call in other entities," Craig said. "It's hard to get your arms around this case. I've never seen anything like it.

"At the meeting (Friday), it was discussed that we might form a task force to investigate this, although for now it's a Detroit police investigation," Craig said. "We're going to follow the evidence and see where it takes us."

Parks and Cieslak on Oct. 3 filed a motion to certify the lawsuit as a class-action. They have three other lawsuits pending from parents making similar charges.

After the investigation into the alleged mishandling of fetuses and infants became public knowledge, parents who had used Perry and Cantrell for burials and cremations began wondering if their babies' remains had suffered the same fate.

Aiasha Pearson-Bady of Detroit said she was eight months pregnant when on Aug. 31 she gave birth in Harper-Hutzel Hospital to a stillborn girl she named Avah Neveah.

"After the birth, someone from the hospital came in with funeral information and said, 'You should go with Perry and have them handle the services because they're affordable,' " she said. "So I went with them."

Pearson-Bady said she visited the funeral home a few days later. "When I asked to see my child before she was cremated, they denied my request," she said. "They didn't give me a reason. I thought that was strange, because when my father died, they let me see his body.

"They were supposed to have cremated my baby, but since I heard the news, I'm wondering if I even have my baby's actual ashes," Pearson-Bady said. "I'm in limbo right now, just trying to find out what's going on, and if my baby is one of those that were found in the funeral home."

On Friday, the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs announced it had suspended the mortuary science licenses of Perry and its director Gary Deak. The decision came after an inspection earlier Friday which uncovered "an imminent threat to the public health and safety," LARA spokesman Jason Moon said in a press release.

Cantrell was shut down in April after LARA inspectors found 21 improperly stored bodies, some of them covered in mold, in the facility. When they returned in August after receiving a tip, LARA employees found a fetus and the cremated remains of another body. A second tip received earlier this month led investigators to the fetuses stored in the ceiling compartment.

During a third inspection of Cantrell on Wednesday, investigators discovered the cremated remains of four more bodies. Since April, 38 unattended bodies or fetuses, and 269 containers of cremated remains have been removed from the facility.

Detroit police on Friday raided Q A Cantrell Funeral Home in Eastpointe, seizing computers and other records. The company's attorney Arnold Reed said his client Annetta Cantrell was once married to Raymond Cantrell, former owner of the Detroit facility, but that the two funeral homes are not affiliated.

Craig said the Cantrell and Perry funeral homes aren't known to be connected in any way, other than how they allegedly mishandled remains.

The lawsuit against Perry alleges several organizations were either grossly negligent or fraudulent in handling Alayah's body.

Alayah suffered from severe respiratory problems before her death. Parks and Cieslak allege her remains sat in Harper-Hutzel Hospital for months until the spring of 2015, according to the complaint.

On April 30, 2015, four months after Alayah died, Harper-Hutzel's Chief Medical Officer Patricia Wilkerson-Uddyback sent a letter to Perry Funeral Home saying Alayah's parents and the parents of 36 other fetuses and dead infants had abandoned them at the hospital.

"We have called and left messages, as well as sending Certified Letters in an attempt to have the Parents come in and sign off on the Final Dispositions," the letter said. "Unfortunately, no responses were received."

However, during an April 23 deposition obtained by The News, Wilkerson-Uddyback said she couldn't produce proof the hospital had tried to contact the parents referenced in her letter by phone or certified mail. 

Wilkerson-Uddyback's attorney Carlos Escurel has not responded to multiple phone messages seeking comment. Tonita Cheatham, a spokeswoman for Harper-Hutzel Hospital, said it's against policy to discuss pending litigation. 

Arnkoff, Perry's attorney, said the funeral home only dealt with remains that were listed as unclaimed.

"Perry Funeral Home received these remains from local hospitals who had indicated to Perry that the remains were 'unclaimed' by the parents," Arnkoff said. "In other words, the hospitals had informed Perry that the hospitals had reached out to the parents by certified mail and/or by phone, and the families did not respond. We do not believe that any of these remains involve families that paid Perry for funeral services."

Craig said police are investigating a claim in the lawsuit that Deak, Perry's managing director, "fraudulently represented on Alayah's Certificate of Death that Alayah's body had been interred at Knollwood Memorial Cemetery, Canton, MI, when Perry knew that her remains, along with those of some additional 35-36 deceased infants and/or fetuses were being stored in the morgue at Wayne State," the lawsuit said.

"Perry additionally completed and filed at least seven additional false and fraudulent Delayed Certificates of Death as to other newborns who had died shortly after birth in Detroit area hospitals, indicating that their remains were buried at ... Knollwood Memorial Park Cemetery," the lawsuit said.

Dennis Herman, Knollwood general manager, said the cemetery wasn't involved in Perry's claim to have buried the remains.

"The funeral home makes out those death certificates," Herman told The News in an email last week. "I have nothing to do with that. The cemetery did not receive a body, we did not perform a burial, and we did not bill anyone for it."

Wayne State is also a defendant in the lawsuit, which alleges the university was negligent by failing to properly oversee how remains were handled.

Wayne State spokesman Matt Lockwood said Wednesday in an email: "Without offering an opinion on the lawsuit itself, we believe the claim against the university is baseless and we will be moving soon to dismiss it." University officials declined a subsequent requests for comment. 

Dellihue said she empathizes with other parents who are wondering whether their children's remains were properly handled.

"I know what they're feeling because I'm going through it, too," she said. "I hope they don't find that my baby was in the funeral home. But I need to know one way or another."
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