SAN JOAQUIN COUNTY (CBS13) — The San Joaquin County Coroner’s office said it was deeply disturbed over a Call Kurtis Investigation into an illegal funeral operation.
Unrefrigerated bodies were found inside a Stockton Church and cremated remains were discovered in a U-Haul locker, yet the state still will not answer a simple question: how many bodies were found?
CBS13’s Kurtis Ming took his simple question to a state hearing after the agency repeatedly dodged the answer.
The San Joaquin County Coroner’s office said the state did not even alert them to these bodies and remains found. The same state agency refused to disclose the number of bodies and human remains found.
Sitting before the state cemetery and funeral bureau, an agency with a mandate to protect consumers, Kurtis asked, “are you protecting consumers adequately?”
But how did we get here?
Robert Oliveira never made it to his own funeral, 11 days after his family paid for his cremation. His remains were not ready.
“I was like, oh my god. how do you tell somebody ‘I’m sorry he didn’t make it here?'” said his daughter, Carla Southerland.
A Call Kurtis investigation uncovered the funeral home his family thought they hired from a list the hospital gave them actually closed three months before Robert died. But the phone line was still active and the person answering the phone directed the family to a Stockton Church to make arrangements.
“The only way I identified where I was going, they had hearses out front,” Southerland said.
We learned the pastor of that church, who worked at the now-closed funeral home across town, was forced to close it after a family dispute. Records show in the time since, he was illegally funneling business to the church that was not licensed to handle funerals.
Veronica Harms, who works for the Cemetery and Funeral Bureau, said unlicensed activity was happening inside that church.
State records show an investigator found multiple decedents in an unsecured and unrefrigerated room. The state found remains to be in a condition that prevented the family from having a viewing service. Cremated remains were in paper bags and urns were stacked on top of each other in a U-Haul facility.
But how many loved ones are we talking about? How long were those remains inside that church or storage unit?
The state would not grant us access to anyone directly with the Cemetery and Funeral Bureau, but gave us a spokesperson with limited knowledge of the industry and this case.
When asked why that information is not available to the public, Harms said, “there are just parts of our investigative files that we do not disclose for purposes that – that – are under our jurisdiction.”
“Do these families know what happened to their loved ones?” Kurtis asked.
“That would be a question you’d have to ask the funeral director,” Harms said.
“So you leave it up to the funeral director to say, ‘Hey, we didn’t handle your loved one appropriately?” Kurtis asked.
“We can say that if you’re watching this segment, thankfully, you can call the director and ask them – ‘What happened to our loved ones?'” Harms said.
Not satisfied with those answers, we took our questions to a Cemetery and Funeral Bureau hearing.
“We want to get answers for our viewers we haven’t been able to get,” Kurtis said in the meeting.
He read out loud the vague description given involving the bodies found in the church.
“Multiple decedents, in an unrefrigerated, unsecured room. What is multiple? Is it two? Is it five? Is it 100 bodies inside the church? We brought this simple question to the spokesperson who we were supplied because we could not get direct access to anyone from the Cemetery and Funeral Bureau. And to date, we don’t have that answer. Doesn’t the public deserve that answer?” he said.
The rules keep the bureau from discussing matters that are not on the agenda.
“We cannot engage in a conversation with you right now in regards to this topic. I can tell the public though, every complaint is investigated, every single complaint,” a bureau representative said.
Grieving daughter Carla Southerland did not even know the Cemetery and Funeral Bureau existed. She had no idea there was a place to file a complaint.
She eventually got her dad’s cremated remains, but she worries for other families.
“I can’t be the only person to have had this happen,” she said.
The hearing happened on Tuesday. On Wednesday afternoon, a Cemetery and Funeral Bureau said all families the state knows were impacted by this unlicensed operation have been notified.
They are still not saying how many bodies and cremated remains were discovered.
The state has fined the pastor of the church $8,200, which he has paid.