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Deathly horrors 

Some morticians are digging for deeper regulation of Colorado's funeral business

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When Randy Goddard's mother died in 2005, he sent her body to Aspen Mortuaries, a place that assured "special care" would be taken in her cremation.

When he received a container of ashes and was told they were his mother's remains, he was also given a watch. A red flag went up; Goddard had removed his mother's jewelry before sending her to Aspen, a Denver-area funeral home company.

Then, when he picked up his mother's death certificate at another Aspen location, someone told him his mother's ashes would be ready in days.

Goddard feared Aspen had lost track of his mother's remains, and that's the main thrust of a lawsuit he has filed in Jefferson County District Court. In it, he claims emotional distress, negligence, breach of contract, fraud and violation of state consumer-protection law.

Goddard is not yet prepared to talk to media; the mortuary denies the allegations through lawyer Nicole Essig.

For Steve Vessey, past president of the nonprofit Colorado Funeral Directors Association and a Fort Collins funeral home director, the case highlights yet another reason the loosely watched funeral industry may be headed for crisis.

"I'm tired of the problems," says Vessey. He tells of caskets leaking embalming fluid, forgotten bodies, ethical lapses and disregard for regulations and law.

It's a difficult topic. People don't like to think about what happens in the back rooms of the death-care business, particularly if they are grieving. They trust their loved one's remains are being handled tastefully and with utmost sensitivity.

That's usually what happens, Vessey says, but there's no way to know for sure. The state doesn't license funeral-service providers, perform inspections or require education for employees. Along with other like-minded funeral-home owners, Vessey would welcome intensive regulation of his industry.

"Forty-nine out of 50 states have a license requirement," he notes. "We require licenses of even barbers and cosmetologists," but not funeral homes.

No-care death care

Vessey fears Colorado could be the next Georgia. In 2002, investigators discovered remains of 339 people who were supposedly cremated, rotting in a wooded area. Powdered cement was found in urns. The crematorium behind the mess had evaded inspections because of a legal loophole.

Colorado has seen nothing like that, but a few glaring problems two in Colorado Springs have surfaced.

Allen Kirk Wolford, a director and embalmer at Evergreen Funeral Home and Blunt Mortuary, is charged with forging his own death certificate in an effort to escape debt. He skipped a court date this year and authorities are looking for him, says El Paso County Deputy District Attorney Denise Minish.

Then there's Neva Nolan, owner of the local Nolan Funeral Home. She was charged with 90 violations, which came after two people couldn't obtain refunds from her. They had pre-purchased funeral plans from Nolan years before, and wanted out when they heard rumors Nolan might not make good on them.

An investigator found the Nolan home had closed "at the end of November 2005" and had later operated as a "virtual funeral home making house calls and outsourcing funeral services," according to an affidavit. Nolan admitted to the investigator she "could not make money" on selling "pre-need" contracts, and the roughly $188,000 remaining to be paid to clients is not in a trust account as required, but in an offshore account.

In Denver, Darin Barry became a whistleblower after entering the business following an Internet meeting with Justin Stephens, an executive with Rocky Mountain Funeral Homes, which is based in Breckenridge and operated in late 2005 in the Denver area. Barry says Stephens offered him a job though he had no training or experience OK under current law.

"I was embalming and cremating and making plans for families within three days," says Barry, who left his job as a manager of a Denver Walgreens store to pursue the promise of big bucks.

One of his earliest assignments was transporting a dead baby to a mortuary in the trunk of his gray Hyundai Accent.

"I was like, "This doesn't seem quite right,'" Barry says. ""I don't have anything in the trunk of my car to protect me or the public from any diseases, or that kind of thing.'"

Barry claims the company's crematorium buckets weren't labeled, making it impossible to tell whose remains were in them. He alleges blood and other fluids oozed from bodies and were mishandled, as were toxic embalming chemicals.

Stephens could not be reached for comment. When Barry and the company parted ways in 2006, Barry complained to several district attorneys and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA slapped the company with six violations, four considered "serious," and fined the company.

Filling in the holes

"The problems that are being uncovered could be the tip of the iceberg," worries Steffani Blackstock, executive director of the Colorado Funeral Directors Association. The association asks its 200 or so members to embrace higher standards and supports efforts to license the industry's 1,100 companies.

State Rep. Debbie Stafford, an Aurora Republican, pastor and counselor, frets that con artists have invaded the industry since 1982, when the state dropped licensing requirements.

"All you need is a briefcase and a cell phone," she says. "There is nothing that says you and I couldn't do it."

Stafford recently succeeded in updating state funeral law for the first time in more than three decades. But her efforts to pass a bill requiring licensure and inspections have failed. In 2006, then-Gov. Bill Owens vetoed a measure she supported.

Last year, Bruce Harrelson, a director within the state Division of Regulatory Agencies, testified before the Legislature that licensure is unnecessary. A 2002 state review of industry regulation concluded existing laws and agencies were enough.

Indeed, existing laws caught Nolan, who could spend a long time behind bars. Each felony theft count carries either 12 or six years in prison and fines up to $750,000. She's due in court in late October.

But the penalties are not enough for Stafford, who wants to know how Nolan allegedly operated without a required insurance license since 1991. Stafford says specific industry regulation, including funeral-service licenses, would go a long way toward safeguarding consumers.

"Because we have no licensure, there is no authority that can stop Neva Nolan from running a funeral home," Stafford says. "She could even get convicted and go to prison, and she could still run a funeral home from prison."

Harrelson's office will conclude a second review of the industry in December, at the request of the funeral directors association. The results of the review are expected to set the political stage as Stafford pushes another bill in 2008.

Stafford's seen too much to be dissuaded, including the supposed ashes of Goddard's mother. On Stafford's request, he inspected them, using a strainer from a dollar store.

"We sifted out five stainless steel buttons and 14 surgical staples," Stafford says. "We had to ask the guy, "Did your mother have surgery before she passed away?'"

The answer was no. And she wasn't wearing any clothing with steel buttons.

deyoanna@csindy.com

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