Local News

Tuesday, Sep 17 2013 06:06 PM

State joins investigation of Lake Isabella mortuary

BY STEVE LEVIN Californian staff writer slevin@bakersfield.com

The California Cemetery and Funeral Bureau has joined the Kern County Sheriff's Office investigating a Lake Isabella mortuary accused of failing to provide burial services that were pre-paid.

Sierra Valley Mortuary allegedly buried a 91-year-old woman on March 29 without having a signed and valid pre-need funeral contract, according to search warrant documents filed by the Sheriff's Office in Kern County Superior Court.

The contract should have been signed by the woman, Dorothy Collins; it was signed, instead, by a representative of Bakersfield-based nonprofit Stewards Inc., which manages Social Security benefits and provides budgeting assistance for more than 1,000 people in Bakersfield and Kern County.

"That is not a policy of ours," said Andrae Gonzales, CEO of Stewards, a faith-based organization founded in the mid-1990s.

The representative, Brenda Cary, was placed on administrative leave three weeks ago, Gonzales said.

Charles Coates, owner of Sierra Valley Mortuary, did not return a call seeking comment.

A spokeswoman for the Cemetery and Funeral Bureau, part of the state Department of Consumer Affairs, said it was conducting its own investigation of the mortuary.

According to the search warrants, there were three other examples at the mortuary where paperwork was not filed properly for disposing of human remains.

In the case of Collins, she had paid $11,500 for two pre-need funeral contracts in 2008, which pay in advance for funeral services. Cary allegedly signed both contracts.

The contracts paid for the cost of embalming, a newspaper obituary and a high-end casket. According to the search warrants, Coates admitted that Collins was not embalmed and no obituary was purchased. When Collins' remains were disinterred, it was discovered she'd been buried in a hospital gown and not embalmed.

The search warrants also allege that Cary requested the pre-need contracts from Collins after incorrectly telling her she'd earned too much money from the sale of her home in 2008 and would lose her Social Security benefits.

They also allege that a refund of $1,050 went to Cary instead of Collins.

Gonzales said, however, that Collins' check registry at Stewards' shows a deposit made to it for that same amount.

He also said that in 2008, Collins was a Title II Social Security recipient, which meant there was no resource limit, and if she had been told there was, "it was ill advised."

He added, however, that at the time, there was a question about Collins' Medi-Cal benefits, which did limit a recipient's resource limit to remain eligible for benefits.

Gloria Marshall, chairman of the group's board of directors who along with her husband, John, founded Stewards, called Cary "a longtime and trusted employee" of the nonprofit.

There is no state oversight of representatives who sell pre-need funeral contracts.

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