Local News

Monday, Sep 16 2013 05:11 PM

Lake Isabella mortuary investigated for alleged illegal burials, failing to provide services

BY JASON KOTOWSKI Californian staff writer jkotowski@bakersfield.com

A Lake Isabella mortuary is alleged to have conducted illegal burials and failed to provide funeral services that were paid for in advance.

Search warrants filed in court by Kern County Sheriff's detectives say Sierra Valley Mortuary owner Charles Coates buried Dorothy Collins on March 29 without legal authority. Collins died Feb. 13, but Deputy Coroner Dawn Ratliff refused to sign off on burying the 91-year-old because the mortuary did not have a signed, valid pre-need contract from Collins, and there were no next of kin to make burial decisions on her behalf.

The mortuary buried her anyway. Coates could not immediately be reached for comment Monday.

The investigation turned up three other examples where Sierra Valley Mortuary did not properly fill out paperwork for applications and permits for disposing of human remains.

A pre-need funeral contract is where a buyer pays in advance for funeral services. Collins, through a faith-based organization called Steward's Inc., had paid $11,500 for two pre-need contracts, but her signature was not on either one.

Instead, her Steward's Inc. representative, Brenda Cary, signed the contracts. Steward's Inc. manages Social Security benefits for hundreds of people in the Bakersfield and Bellflower areas, according to its website.

The contracts for Collins included the costs of embalming, an obituary and a high-end "Batesville Pearson Cherry" casket, the search warrant says. Collins' death certificate says she was not embalmed. Coates admitted to detectives that he didn't purchase a newspaper obituary, and there were no documents at Sierra Valley Mortuary indicating what type of casket she was buried in.

The investigation led to the disinterment of Collins' remains. The search warrant says California Cemetery and Funeral Bureau representatives were present and verified Collins was not embalmed, was buried in a hospital-type gown and had not been prepared for burial as paid for in her contract.

The mortuary failed to provide paid services for Collins totaling more than $2,600, according to the search warrant.

Detectives have requested records from both the mortuary and Steward's Inc. The search warrant says Cary requested the pre-need contracts from Collins, telling her she had netted too much money from the sale of her home prior to entering a nursing home in 2008.

The search warrant says Cary told Coates the pre-need contract was necessary because Collins would lose her Social Security benefits for having too many assets. In contrast, detectives say in the warrant that a person receiving Social Security does not lose monthly benefits for having too much money.

Detectives also discovered that a refund of $1,050 from the second pre-need contract was sent to Cary when it should have been sent to Collins, according to the search warrant. Coates, the mortuary owner, said he didn't know what the refund was for, and said Cary had contacted him eight other times for pre-need contracts for other people.

Cary could not be reached for comment.

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