Suit seeks $10M over infant remains stashed in funeral home ceiling

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News
The ceiling compartment where the remains were found hidden inside the former Cantrell Funeral Home.

Detroit — A Detroit couple has filed a $10 million lawsuit after the stillborn daughter they thought was laid to rest nearly a decade ago was found stuffed in the ceiling of a shuttered funeral home.

Janelle M. Barber and Randy A. Holley, the parents of "Baby Holley," filed suit Friday in Wayne County Circuit Court against the Cantrell Funeral Home and its owners and operators as well as Harper-Hutzel Hospital, alleging they acted in concert in the negligent handling of the remains of the deceased baby girl and denied her the right to burial.

"We want $1 million for every year that baby rotted up in the crawl space," said Bill Colovos, a Southgate-based attorney representing the couple. "The nightmares do not stop. It's just inhumane."

The infant's body was found along with the remains of 10 fetuses inside the shuttered east side funeral home last month after state regulators received an anonymous tip that remains had been hidden in a ceiling compartment there. The site had been shuttered since spring over deplorable conditions.

Detroit police vehicles seen parked outside the now-vacant Cantrell Funeral Home.

The Friday lawsuit — which names Raymond Cantrell II and Annetta Cantrell, the second wife of the funeral home's late founder, Raymond Cantrel — notes the child was born at the hospital on April 14, 2009.

The family was allegedly informed by the hospital that Cantrell Funeral Home would have custody of the body. They paid for the funeral and a burial at Mt. Elliott Cemetery as well as for the baby's casket, the filing notes, and were later told that the child had been buried. Authorities told them otherwise last month.

In an interview with The Detroit News late Friday, Cantrell II said he wasn't in Michigan or involved with the funeral home in 2009. Rather, he arrived in Detroit on May 30, 2017, to take over the family business after his father had died the year prior.

"I left Louisiana and came to inherit my father's business. Anything that happened prior to that, I am not really involved," Cantrell II said. "I feel bad about all of the tragedies and all that has fallen on me. I am a victim of circumstance."

In the case of Baby Holley, Cantrell II, who said he does not have an attorney, reiterated he was "not around" and did not know the family, receive the child or handle the arrangements. Cantrell said he'd had no knowledge of the infant remains uncovered by state investigators. 

Arnold Reed, an attorney for Annetta Cantrell, denied the allegations Friday. Nothing in the complaint connects his client to any wrongdoing, he contends. 

"There are sweeping generalizations based upon not even as much as a single micro-fleck of evidence that Annetta Cantrell is connected to this in any form or fashion," Reed said. 

In response to the lawsuit, the Detroit Medical Center, which oversees Harper-Hutzel,  issued a statement, saying "DMC does not comment on pending litigation."

According to the Friday lawsuit, the plaintiffs were contacted by Michigan State Police and Detroit homicide detectives on Oct. 30, informing them that a baby found in the ceiling crawlspace at the funeral home was potentially their daughter. The mother was asked for a DNA sample. 

On Nov. 2, the baby's father got word from authorities of a positive match, the lawsuit notes.

"The baby was to have been buried, and nine years later, there's a Detroit homicide detective on their porch asking for a DNA sample," said Colovos, who represents plaintiffs in a half-dozen other cases alleging mishandling of fetal remains. "They thought their baby was laid to rest. There was no question, everything was all taken care of."

The hospital, the lawsuit alleges, had a business relationship with the funeral home, which was to provide the removal and preservation of the infant.

Reed noted that he intends to file a counter-claim for defamation.

"This lawsuit is like Swiss cheese, it stinks, and it's got holes in it," he said.