Holes in mortuary logs under scrutiny in funeral home probe

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — As part of an investigation into alleged wrongdoing at Detroit funeral homes, police are looking into whether laws were broken when dozens of fetuses were dropped off at a university morgue without being identified.

Perry Funeral Home is the subject of state and Detroit police investigations for allegedly mishandling remains and falsely claiming to have buried them. Attorneys for plaintiffs in a lawsuit that was granted class-action status earlier this month told a Wayne County judge Perry may have mishandled more than 200 infant and fetal remains.

Wayne State University Mortuary log sheets from 2013-17 list hundreds of properly identified entries, but at least three dozen were incomplete, according to a Detroit News review of records submitted as part of a civil lawsuit in Wayne County Circuit Court.

The lawsuit, filed in July, accuses Perry Funeral Home in Detroit of mishandling of remains. The complaint also names the Detroit Medical Center/Harper-Hutzel Hospital, Wayne State and Knollwood Memorial Park as defendants.

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In most instances, parents named their stillborn and live birth babies, and the names and death dates were entered in the mortuary ledger.

In cases where infants were not named, the surnames and dates of death were recorded.

However, the incomplete entries are simply marked "fetus” or "fetuses." Their identities and dates of death were not logged. Most of the entries do not record how many unidentified fetuses were brought in, although some are marked with numbers as high as 48. 

According to the ledgers, all of the mystery fetuses were dropped off at the university's morgue by employees of Perry Funeral Home, which had an agreement with Wayne State to store remains.

Entries in Wayne State University Mortuary Science morgue log books are marked "fetus" or "fetuses" without the required identifying information like name and death date. The unidentified remains were dropped off at the morgue by Perry Funeral Home, which is the subject of a police investigation.

In addition to the civil lawsuit, Perry is the subject of a criminal investigation into the handling of fetuses and infant remains. The probe also involves Cantrell Funeral Home on Mack.

It's not clear whether the unnamed fetuses in the log are among more than 100 bodies found at the two funeral homes this year.

Detroit police detectives are looking into whether the incomplete log book entries are a criminal violation — and, if so, who is responsible, Detroit police Chief James Craig said.

"Does that fall under the law against the improper disposal of remains? We're looking at that," Craig said. "That's certainly something we're investigating. This case has a lot of avenues we need to go down."

Monday night, Craig said he is developing a multijurisdictional task force to  investigate the allegations laid out in the lawsuit.

Angela Minicuci, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said the funeral director who receives the body of a live-born infant must report the death to the state, while a stillbirth or fetal death must be reported by the delivering attendant/facility if the stillbirth reached at least 20 weeks of gestation or a weight of 400 grams.

The civil lawsuit alleges the funeral home and university were negligent by failing to identify the fetuses. 

Wayne State spokesman Matt Lockwood said Monday the university is not responsible for the incomplete log entries.

"Wayne State has provided Perry Funeral Home with temporary, secure shelter for remains over the years," Lockwood said in an email. "However, it has never been our responsibility for arrangements or final disposition of the remains. Wayne State has had no role in either retrieving remains from or delivering remains to that or any other funeral home. This tragic situation is not a university issue."

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 in a written statement. "Perry Funeral Home has conducted itself within the confines of the applicable statutes."

According to Michigan Act 328 of 1931, "a person shall not ... after agreeing to provide for the final disposition of a dead human body, fail or refuse to properly dispose of that dead human body."

University of Detroit-Mercy law professor Larry Dubin said while industry rules may have been broken by failing to identify the remains, it's unclear crimes were committed.

"It seems to me if the funeral director has an agreement to properly supervise the final disposition of a body, but fails to do so, it would fall under (Michigan Act 328)," Dubin said. "The issue is whether failure to identify the remains falls under that statute."

The lawsuit against Perry, filed in July, is central to the Detroit police investigation, Craig said. After news of the issues at Cantrell broke on Oct. 12, the father who is suing Perry for allegedly mishandling his stillborn daughter's remains asked his attorneys Peter J. Parks and Daniel W. Cieslak to tell police about the allegations made in their suit.

The lawsuit involves Alayah Davis, who died 27 minutes after her Dec. 8, 2014, birth. 

The suit alleges that Perry filed a fake death certificate claiming Alayah's remains had been buried, and then billed Medicaid and others for the service that wasn't performed. The complaint also accuses Perry of "carelessness and/or negligence in recording the identity of Alayah's remains and the identities of hundreds of other deceased newborns and/or fetuses."

The lawsuit also accuses Wayne State of "failure to exercise due and reasonable care in overseeing the operation of its morgue and the conduct of Defendant Perry which it contractually afforded storage privileges to."

The Michigan Funeral Directors Manual requires the filing of Burial Transfer Permits for live birth babies, or Final Disposition of a Still Birth for fetuses and stillborn babies. The lawsuit alleges Perry and Wayne State failed to follow that procedure.

"Wayne State failed to require presentation and delivery of a Burial Transfer Permit for Alayah as well as Burial Transfer Permits for other deceased newborns stored at the morgue," the lawsuit said. "Upon information and belief, defendant Wayne State failed to require presentation and delivery of Final Disposition of a Still Birth forms relative to the remains of fetuses and stillborn that Perry stored at the morgue as well."

State regulators suspended the licenses of Perry and its director, Gary Deak, on Friday and closed the facility after police and state investigators raided the chapel on Trumbull and removed 63 fetuses. Investigators found 36 fetuses in a box, and 27 more in freezer compartments.

A week earlier, police and state inspectors removed 10 fetuses and a baby's body from a ceiling compartment from Cantrell on Mack. Cantrell was shut down in April after LARA inspectors found 21 improperly stored bodies, some of them covered in mold, in the facility. Since then, 38 unattended bodies or fetuses, and 269 containers of cremated remains have been removed from the facility.

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

Police also are investigating claims made in the 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.

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN