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Confusion and Complaints with Cremation Company Prompt State Investigation

February 20, 2017 05:52 PM

The Minnesota Department of Health is investigating a Colorado-based cremation company after families accused the business of not picking up the remains of their deceased in a timely fashion, a 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS investigation has found.

Sources say that the department has been in contact with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regarding complaints against Heritage Cremation Provider, LLC.

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The website for Heritage Cremation Provider gives the impression that the company is located in Minnesota and appears to have caused confusion amongst families who thought they’d be dealing directly with a local company.

Phyllis Rust of Fergus Falls shared her experience with Heritage Cremation’s alleged failure to pick up her husband’s body in 2015.

“Losing him was hard enough, let alone being put through this kind of nightmare,” Rust recalled. “We had been married 53 years. We had a really good life together.”

Her husband, Ken, got her into dog breeding to help support her for that time when he would be gone.

“We had gone through about a year and a half battle with cancer," Rust said. "I was totally exhausted to start with. This definitely didn’t help me, my health or well-being.”

While Ken was struggling through his last days, his wife reached out to the company. In an email, she said that Heritage explained what was included in the $995 cost and what was not.  Ken died a few days after Phyllis received the email.

Rust says she signed the forms authorizing Heritage to pick up her husband’s remains but ended up waiting three days for someone to take the body away.

“If I could have gotten a hold of somebody at that time, I would have tried ringing necks,” she said.

When Rust finally did hear back from Heritage, she says the company claimed that their supposed-facility was full and the price for the company’s services had more than doubled. She said this was “totally unacceptable” because she “didn’t have an additional $1,295 at that point.”

After days of waiting, Rust said she finally contacted a Minnesota-based funeral home, which arrived that night to pick up her husband’s body. “It was heart wrenching,” she said. “It was just very, very, very tough.”

She’s not the only Minnesotan who claimed to have bad experiences with Heritage.

Pamela Thein said she found Heritage through a web search.

“Their website pops up, and it’s all about Minnesota cremation. I was like, that’s great," Thein said.

Thein and her sister, Wendy Hatchner, say they contacted for their father, Gerry Robinson. Robinson was a Korean War veteran from Osakis and died in March of 2015.

“I was told Dad would be picked up within two hours” Hatchner said.

But the next day, she experienced the same issue as Rust.

“Then we get a call from the VA (Veterans Administration); your Dad hasn’t been picked up,” Hatchner said.

“Who does this to someone? If we hadn’t been so forceful, would they have left him there for a week?” said Thein, adding that “I was just appalled that someone would do this.”

Heritage Cremation Provider has business filings in Colorado Springs, Colorado. A photographer hired by 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS tried to get more information and was met by a receptionist at the company’s office. The receptionist, who asked the photographer to stop recording, stated that she forwards the cremation company’s mail to a different address. Shortly thereafter, a person claiming to be a manager asked the photographer to leave.

The Minnesota Department of Health, which oversees cremation and funeral services, told us that Heritage Cremation Provider is not licensed in Minnesota and acts as an “online middle man.”

The MDH says that they have received complaints against the company.

“It’s a difficult conversation with our staff, when those calls do come in” said Gil Acevedo, the Assistant Health Commissioner. 

Acevedo declined to comment on specifics, stating that “we can’t speak to any open investigations or any investigations we are working on.”

The department’s website links to legal action taking by other states against Heritage.

In Florida, the state’s Division of Funeral, Cemetery, and Consumer Services issued a consumer alert about the company. The alert notes that the “business' website does not provide any address for where the business is located, and the website does not provide the names of any persons employed by or representing the business.” 

The alert adds that a complaint they “received indicates that a person answering the toll-free number identified himself only as "AJ" and was reluctant or unwilling to provide further identification.” The alert points out that in 2001, “Florida regulatory authorities revoked the Direct Disposer (cremation services) license of one Anthony J. Damiano.” 

In addition, the state issued a cease and desist order against Heritage Cremation Provider, L.L.C. The order says that the company is “managed and owned by a Joseph Damiano and a Anthony Joseph (A.J.) Damiano.” The order also states that Heritage was at no time “licensed in the state as a funeral establishment” and that the Damiano’s must stop selling or offering funeral services within the state. 

In 2002, our Miami affiliate, WPLG, broadcast a story on a Joseph Damiano after allegations surfaced that he sold bodies from his crematorium to a university’s embalming class without the families’ permission. 

The New York Times reported in 2002 that a crematory operated by Damiano was raided by agents from the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which was described as “an illegal crematory in Miami.”

Oregon authorities have also take action against Heritage, fining the company $10,000. And in 2016 North Carolina ordered the company to cease and desist from advertising funeral and cremation services in the state, pay a fine and issued a suspended jail sentence against those behind the company. In addition, the Florida consumer alert noted that Tennessee has taken legal action against a different funeral company run by Joseph Damiano, issuing a civil penalty of $8,000 for violating state regulations. 

5 EYEWITNESS NEWS attempted one last time to speak with representatives from Heritage for comment about Minnesota’s investigation into the company.

When we called, a woman who answered refused to identify herself, or make Joseph Damiano or AJ Damiano available for comment. She would only say that “we serve many families, sometimes things happen that are beyond our control, it's not that we mean for it to happen, we are trying to serve them the best we possibly can."

In Minnesota, cremation and funeral companies need to be licensed. The health department has an online database that consumers can use to fine a licensed cremation service or funeral home in their community.

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Eric Chaloux can be reached at echaloux@kstp.com or 651-642-4488.

Erik Altmann can be reached at ealtmann@kstp.com or 651-642-4284. 

Credits

Theresa Malloy

Copyright 2017 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company

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