Detroit Free Press
Published 11:17 AM EDT Oct 21, 2018
When their daughter died 27 minutes after her birth in December 2014, a Detroit couple donated the infant's remains for medical research. Four years later, Rachel Brown and Larry Davis don't know what happened to Alayah's tiny body.
They're plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed earlier this year that may help explain how the remains of 63 fetuses were discovered by police Friday in boxes and freezers at Perry Funeral Home at Warren and Trumbull on Detroit's west side.
"Any loss is a hard loss," said Peter Parks, an attorney representing the couple in thelawsuit against the funeral home and several other entities. "But to lose a child you carried a full-term is exceptionally tough, especially knowing their body didn't go where you think it did."
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The disturbing find at Perry Funeral Home occurred one week after the remains of 10 fetuses and one infant were found in the ceiling of Cantrell Funeral Home on Detroit's east side. Friday's raid at the Perry home came after Detroit homicide detectives also raided QA Cantrell Funeral Home in Eastpointe to investigate a potential connection with the fetuses found in the ceiling of Cantrell Funeral Home in Detroit.
Parks said up to 200 more bodies may be found to be in improper possession of Perry Funeral Home.
State regulators shuttered the business amid a widening investigation of alleged improprieties at local funeral homes. And Detroit Police Chief James Craig said that law enforcement agencies are considering forming a task force to target improper storage of remains and fraud in the area.
"I’ve never seen anything (like this) in my 41 and a half years” as a police officer, Craig said, at a news conference on Friday, adding: “It’s disturbing, but we will get to the bottom of this.”
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Brown's and Davis's lawsuit against Perry Funeral Home alleges it stored the remains of stillborn and live birth babies in the Wayne State University School of Mortuary Science morgue for up to three years without trying to notify parents, some of whom wanted to donate the bodies for medical research. It also alleges the funeral home may have fraudulently billed Medicaid, as well as the Detroit Medical Center, for burials it never performed.
Parks said Alayah's remains were in the basement morgue of the Detroit Medical Center's Harper/Hutzel Hospital for months and were never transferred to the Wayne State University School of Medicine as planned. The couple still doesn't know where Alayah's remains are.
Parks said that of the 63 fetuses found in Friday's police raid, some originated at the Harper/Hutzel Hospital and were transferred to Perry Funeral Home, then Wayne State University's Mortuary Science Department and back to Perry Funeral Home over the span of about four years.
Parks and attorney Daniel Cieslak filed the civil suit against Perry Funeral Home, the DMC, Wayne State University and Knollwood Memorial Park Cemetery on behalf of Brown and Davis.
Detroit Medical Center declined comment, citing its policy to not speak on pending litigation. Perry Funeral Home also declined a request for comment from the Free Press.
Parks said the remains of dozens of fetuses were initially stored in Harper/Hutzel's morgue for "months and in some instances, maybe even over a year."
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Moreover, some of the bodies stored — as with Alayah — were supposed to be donated to the Wayne State University Medical School, but the DMC "carelessly and negligently" failed to deliver the remains and did not notify the family of its failure to do so, according to Parks and Cieslak in the lawsuit.
"I really can't explain how these remains didn't make it to the medical school," Parks said.
Detroit Medical Center found the remains of 37 fetuses in the Harper/Hutzel morgue in 2015 when it was consolidating it with another DMC morgue, Parks said. When the DMC found the remains, it reached out to Perry Funeral Home to arrange final disposition of the bodies. The funeral home picked up the bodies on May 13, 2015 and later picked up other human remains from the DMC, Parks added.
The DMC paid Perry Funeral Home $100 per fetus, the Troy-based attorney said.
He said Perry Funeral Home did not keep records of the 37 fetuses from DMC, and the next time they were accounted for was Aug. 7, 2015 when the WSU Department of Mortuary Science accepted the remains from the funeral home. A Perry Funeral Home staff member logged the transaction using Wayne State log books, Parks said.
Inspectors for the State of Michigan’s Corporations, Securities & Commercial Licensing Bureau said in a statement that they had found “heinous conditions and negligent conduct” at the Perry Funeral Home, including numerous failures to certify death certificates and obtain proper permits for burial.
According to Michigan law, "Once a funeral director agrees to provide his or her services, final disposition must occur within 60 days or the funeral director is guilty of a criminal misdemeanor." However, inability to obtain disposition authorization is an exception to the statue.
The funeral home asked a public administrator to approve disposition of the bodies, but its request was denied, Parks said.
"They didn't reach out to the medical examiner and didn't make an effort to contact the family members (of the deceased), which is the first thing they should have done," Parks said.
Letters from the DMC to the Perry Funeral Home state that the hospital made phone calls and mailed letters to families of the deceased, but, according to the letters, no one came forward.
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Parks said because of those letters, the funeral home managers did not attempt to contact the families of the unclaimed stillborn and liveborn remains.
"The law imposes a duty on (the funeral home) to make a reasonable effort to contact family members," Parks said.
In exchange for Perry Funeral Home providing Wayne State's Mortuary Science Department adult bodies for student embalmment training, the funeral home "evidently negotiated a deal with the university to store the fetuses," Parks said.
Wayne State released a statement Saturday: "Wayne State has provided Perry Funeral Home with temporary, secure shelter for remains over the years. 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."
Parks said after he asked for records from Wayne State's Mortuary Science Department, the school issued a letter to Perry Funeral Home in May 2017 asking the funeral home to remove all human remains being stored at the university's morgue by August that year.
"Virtually all of them were removed in late July (2017) and placed back into Perry," Parks said.
Parks said he believes there may be up to 200 remains in improper possession of Perry Funeral Home based on his research of log books kept by the Wayne State University School of Mortuary Science.
He added that Perry does "a pathetic job record-keeping" and said that might be deliberate, as it would make it more difficult to conduct an investigation on its practices.
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Contributing: The Associated Press
Folllow Omar Abdel Bbaqui on Twitter: @omarabdelb