By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
The family of a deceased U.S. Army veteran whose body was stored for months in a Falls Church funeral home's unrefrigerated garage is asking Fairfax County prosecutors to investigate the case as a crime.
Richard Morgan Jr., a Harrisonburg, Va., criminal defense attorney, hand-delivered a letter to Commonwealth's Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh's office yesterday arguing that the actions of National Funeral Home and its parent company, Houston-based Service Corporation International, amount to felonies. Morgan said his father's body was "defiled" because it was left to rot on a garage rack, a possible felony under a Virginia law regulating the treatment of corpses.
The body of Maj. Richard Morgan was left from November to February in a light oak coffin in the garage at SCI's central care facility, located in the same building as National Funeral Home, according to current and former employees who saw the coffin and the body inside. Morgan's family identified photographs of his remains -- dressed in a dark green suit, white shirt and red tie -- that were taken by former funeral home employee Steven Napper on Dec. 12 as he catalogued problems he felt the company was ignoring.
Napper, an embalmer and former Maryland state trooper, reported unsanitary and unethical conditions to the Virginia Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers before resigning in February. His accounts were bolstered by other employees -- including one who came forward publicly yesterday -- and a client who stumbled upon the conditions in the garage and a walk-in cooler at the funeral home. The building serves as a central clearinghouse for bodies coming from five area SCI funeral homes.
Napper said as many as half a dozen bodies destined for burial at Arlington National Cemetery, including Morgan's, were left on the unrefrigerated racks because coolers were full and his supervisors said the company did not want to spend more money.
"This is going to keep happening unless and until people feel the oppressive weight of government and the possibility that they could be thrown in jail," Morgan said yesterday in an interview after he left the letter for Morrogh. "This should not be considered a cost of business. We need to make an example of this."
Morrogh, who was out of town yesterday and had not yet received the letter, said he could not comment on what he might do. State officials declined to comment. SCI officials have said they take the allegations seriously and are investigating, but they said they have yet to substantiate them.
The Washington Post reported Sunday that current and former SCI employees and a customer alleged unsanitary and unethical conditions at SCI's regional central care facility.
They said the facility stored as many as 200 bodies in unrefrigerated areas, including the garage, and that the bodies, sometimes fully exposed, leaked fluids on the floor.
Morgan, 41, said he felt betrayed by what happened to his father's body. He said he was told it would be refrigerated from the time of the death in November until his burial with full military honors Feb. 6 at Arlington. Morgan said he and his family members -- including a sister in Montgomery County and another sister who is deployed to Afghanistan with the Virginia National Guard -- were distraught after learning that their father's body was instead left on a storage rack to decompose.
"Somebody willfully and intentionally put my father's corpse on that rack," said Morgan, whose father served 20 years in the Army before working for it as a civilian for 26 more years. He left in 1994. "Those are the people I'd like to see punished."
Morgan, who was quoted anonymously in Sunday's Post report, said an SCI official contacted him over the weekend and denied the allegations, although he said he received no explanation for Napper's photographs, which showed bodies stored in the unrefrigerated garage. Morgan said the SCI official agreed to refund the $14,111.65 the family paid for funeral services.
"Our investigation is ongoing, and it would be inappropriate for us to comment upon it at this time or to discuss the substance of any conversations with client families," J. Scott Young, president of SCI Virginia Funeral Services, said in a statement. "In the event that any regulators or law enforcement authorities decide to investigate or make any sort of inquiry, they would have our full cooperation."
The family of retired Army Col. Andrew DeGraff, whose body was also left in a coffin on the garage rack next to Morgan's, said they would support a criminal investigation.
"My ultimate goal when I heard about this whole incident is that they lose their license and they are no longer allowed to do this business," said Grace Wozniak, DeGraff's granddaughter.
Another current SCI employee blew the whistle yesterday to decry what he has seen at their central facility in Falls Church. Robert Ranghelli, 19, of Manassas Park said the operation there is "a disgrace."
In addition to dressing bodies and making them up for viewings, Ranghelli handles "removals," or picking up the dead to take them to National Funeral Home. He said he has worked there since January and has seen numerous bodies stored in the garage, including as many as a dozen veterans on the racks waiting for burial at Arlington. He took photographs of coffins, some of which he said contained bodies, on the racks and of blood stains on the floor.
He said supervisors have asked him to store bodies on the racks and have skipped parts of the cleaning process in order to save money, even if families are charged for it.
"It's a death factory," said Ranghelli, who is also a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician. "I've had a lot of sleepless nights. I just don't feel right having to do things like place people's loved ones on racks in the garage."
Ranghelli said that he saw a state board investigator taking photographs and going through files at the funeral home last month and that she visited again yesterday. He said yesterday that supervisors there were scrambling to clean the facility over the weekend, when The Post first exposed the allegations. He said that employees bleached the cooler to remove stains and that some of the SCI funeral homes came to retrieve bodies stored there.
Numerous clients said yesterday that they called area SCI funeral homes and were told that the company is looking into the situation.
John Mastal, 37, said his father, retired Air Force Col. Jerome Mastal, died June 29 and was buried Sept. 28 at Arlington. He said employees of Demaine Funeral Home in Alexandria -- an SCI property -- told his family that the body would be refrigerated at their central facility.
"It was comforting at the time, but now I have lots of questions," Mastal said.
"Today, they say the bad conditions did not exist. Hopefully, this didn't happen to my father, but how am I ever going to know?"
Staff writer Tom Jackman contributed to this report.