Body Snatchers

Hollywood movie producers in search of horror-flick plots should look south to Orange County, where courthouse files are stuffed with bizarre stories of mutilation and other desecrations of the freshly dead at local mortuaries and crematories. The latest plot involves McCormick & Son mortuaries, which--without admitting any wrongdoing--has agreed to a $10.86 million proposed settlement to end claims that from 1982 to 1995, the company's practices with corpses were "offensive to human sensibilities." McCormick & Son "systematically and commonly . . . mishandled, mutilated, commingled and otherwise disrespectfully and illegally cremated" the remains of potentially "thousands"of corpses, according to a class-action suit by three Orange County women.

Michael Grob, a Sacramento-based attorney who represents lead plaintiffs Dorothy Brock, Sonja Guard and Gail Dabbs in the pending case against McCormick & Son, said the mortuary "disposed of decedent's remains as waste or garbage."

Among the accusations: corpses were stacked on top of one another in an offensive manner; bodies were cremated at the same time in the same chamber; cremated remains were commingled in 5-gallon buckets, cardboard boxes and other containers; families were misled about whose ashes had been placed in urns; dental gold and silver was yanked from corpses and then secretly sold; and the company tried to cover up the desecrations by altering cremation logs. If true, those actions may have violated state laws, but Attorney General Dan Lungren has not pursued the matter.

An attorney familiar with the class-action case said there was evidence that the mortuary would "scoop up whatever ashes were sitting around" and put them in an urn when survivors came to pick up the ashes of their loved ones.

"These people may have been getting ashes from their Frank, but they could have also been getting a piece of Tom, Dick and Harry," said the attorney.

When the class-action cases were filed in August 1995, McCormick & Son representatives called the allegations "groundless" and said the business followed state law and industry practices. In 1988, company president Robert J. McCormick Jr. told The Orange County Register that mortuaries that take advantage of grieving consumers "wouldn't be in business very long."

Regardless of the denials, the alleged abuses have left surviving family members distraught.

Court records show that the ashes of Brock's husband of 41 years, Bobby Lee, should have been ceremonially dispersed from a boat in the Pacific Ocean off Laguna Beach. But the widow believes something went terribly wrong. She maintains that McCormick & Son's "illegal, improper and disrespectful" cremation practices left her "no peace of mind" about what happened to her husband's remains. She said in court pleadings that she suffers "guilt and anxiety" for failing to carry out her late husband's final wishes.

Brock and the other two lead plaintiffs told the court that their action against the mortuary was to "assure the general public that such conduct will never again occur, and that no . . . bereaved family . . . ever again has to suffer the indignities" they endured.

Surviving families might never have learned of the alleged abuses had it not been for the 1995 revelations by Craig Stewart, a former McCormick & Son employee who handled funeral services, prepared bodies for final disposition and performed cremations. Stewart filed suit in January 1995 against Robert J. McCormick Jr., claiming he had been fired for refusing to perform improper and illegal acts out of public view. Stewart said he was ordered to cremate more than one person at a time in the same chamber and to put bodies in used caskets. The wrongful-termination case was settled out-of-court for an unspecified amount. Stewart's allegations sparked the pending class-action suit.

In addition to the financial penalty, McCormick & Son will be permanently enjoined from practices that do not "guarantee the dignity and respectful treatment" of the dead. Superior Court Judge John K. Trotter Jr. issued a preliminary ruling in July that described the proposed settlement, which was negotiated by a professional mediator, as "fair, adequate and reasonable." Trotter is scheduled to make a final ruling on Sept. 15.

If all goes as expected at the hearing, one of the nation's ugliest corpse-desecration cases will come to an end, a decade after another high-profile $16.5 million settlement involving similar allegations against Cremar, an Anaheim crematory.

McCormick & Son--which has locations in Laguna Beach, Laguna Hills, Inglewood, Whittier, Hawthorne, Gardena and Redondo Beach--has been in trouble before. In 1990, a jury ordered them to pay $1.9 million in damages to the nauseated owners of a Laguna Canyon auto shop who complained that the neighboring crematory was not controlling odors of burnt flesh, smoke and greasy dust. In 1993, the company was sued by a Texas woman whose husband died unexpectedly of a heart attack in Laguna Hills. The 32-year-old widow went into shock and fainted when the refrigerated body arrived at the Amarillo train station in a "horrible" smelling, "bloated, discolored, partially decomposed and distorted" condition. McCormick & Son, which had been paid $1,709 by the widow, was accused of not performing basic cosmetic services on the corpse before shipping it. An attorney for the woman said his client was "continually haunted" by "vivid" nightmares. Even though the mortuary denied any wrongdoing, it settled the case out of court before a jury could hear the details, and then had a local judge seal the deal.

Cases of lost or switched corpses or other bizarre practives have not been unusual in Orange County. In 1995, the state shut down Ray Family San Clemente Mortuary for 45 days and issued a $45,000 civil penalty for engaging in unprofessional embalming, falsifying official documents, and illegally charging exorbitant fees.

An expert said the funeral industry has a long way to go to clean up its act.

"The dead don't speak, so these mortuaries can get away with it for years," said Scott Schutzmann, an attorney who has handled several high-profile Orange County cases against mortuaries in recent years. "Based on my knowledge, I would say that [fraud and desecration] are endemic to the industry."

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