By Avi Selk, The Washington Post
Detroit Police Chief James Craig announced a “wide probe” into Michigan funeral homes Friday, after hidden caches of baby corpses were allegedly discovered at two unrelated businesses inside a week.
“This is deeply disturbing,” Craig said at a news conference, hours after police raided Perry Funeral Home and allegedly seized 63 fetus or infant bodies, more than half of which were packed together in unrefrigerated boxes. “We want to understand the reasons: Is it financial gain? If so, how? Who knew or who else is involved in this?”
The raid came a week after an anonymous letter led investigators to an abandoned funeral home on the other side of central Detroit, where they allegedly found nearly a dozen infant corpses hidden in a ceiling.
“I would like to look at you and tell you I hope … that this is isolated to these two. I can’t say that with certainty,” Craig told reporters, shortly after leaving a meeting with FBI and state investigators. “This is much larger than we might know.”
The police chief gave few details about the investigation, and declined to speculate as to what would motivate someone to keep tiny desiccated corpses long after they were supposed to have been interred. All the same, he described how the case escalated rapidly from a single anonymous tip into a full-blown investigative task force that could now probe businesses throughout the state.
The case began last week at Cantrell Funeral Home in east Detroit, which had been shuttered since the spring over accusations that adult corpses had been improperly stored to the point of growing mold.
An unsigned letter received on Oct. 12 urged investigators to return to the business and search it. The note led them to what police described as a hidden compartment in a ceiling — containing a casket, cardboard boxes, several trash bags and the remains of 11 dead infants.
Speaking to reporters on the night of that discovery, a police sergeant attributed to bodies’ condition to “just the callousness of the owner, the operators, the employees of the funeral home.”
Nevertheless, police opened a criminal investigation into the matter this week. Investigators then got a second tip, leading them to a second funeral home.
“A parent saw the story” about Cantrell in the news, Craig told reporters. “He told his attorney he wanted to go to the police.”
The Detroit News wrote that the tipsters were the parents of Alayah Davis, who died of respiratory failure minutes after she was born in late 2014.
The mother and father sued Perry Funeral Home in July, alleging that the company had claimed to bury Alayah at a particular cemetery but had actually stored their bodies for years in a mortuary school morgue. The company was accused in the lawsuit of hoarding other dead infant, the News reported, including some whose parents wanted the corpses donated for medical research.
Perry went so far as to issue fraudulent death certificates for the infants, the lawsuit alleged, and billed Medicaid and hospitals for funerals that were never performed.
“We do not believe that any of these remains involve families that paid Perry for funeral services,” a lawyer for the funeral home, Joshua I. Arnkoff, wrote in a news release late Saturday. He said the funeral home obtained the corpses from local hospitals that had been unable to contact the parents to claim them.
“Perry never received the legal authority necessary to conduct a final disposition of the remains,” the attorney wrote, and therefore had no choice but to hold onto them.
The Washington Post could not independently review the lawsuit, but Craig, the police chief, said the allegations led them to raid Perry Funeral Home.
Inside, on Friday afternoon, they found “three unrefrigerated boxes containing the remains of a total of approximately 36 deceased bodies of fetuses or infants,” according to a statement from the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, “plus a deep freezer containing an unknown number of additional deceased bodies.”
The agency alleged that Perry and its director, Gary Deak, failed to file death certificates for at least some of those bodies; and stored them without being the families’ permission; and improperly held them for months — long enough to constitute a state felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison. A lawyer for the business told The Post that Deak was “unavailable for comment” but disputes accusations that his business had hidden corpses.
Perry Funeral Home had its license revoked immediately after the raid and is now shuttered like Cantrell before it. While a criminal investigation is underway, no one has been reported arrested in either case.
The police chief, Craig, said a task force of local and state police, FBI advisers, and other investigators has been assembled to look for any possible connection between the two funeral homes, any possible reason for hoarding infant corpses, and the possibility that businesses in the region could have done the same.
“We have tremendous work today,” the police chief said. “We know some of it may take us away or out of the city of Detroit.”