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For at least 6 months, state failed to act on Carlinville funeral director that mishandled remains

For at least 6 months, state failed to act on Carlinville funeral director that mishandled remains

Bodies found decomposing, families given strangers’ ashes in months following coroner’s complaint

By BETH HUNDSDORFER
Capitol News Illinois
bhundsdorfer@capitolnewsillinois.com

State regulators allowed a Carlinville funeral director to operate for months despite a complaint filed by a local coroner who found a decomposing body in his funeral home and alleged the care of the remains was “unacceptable and criminal in nature.”

While trying to assist a local family with retrieving cremated remains in March, Morgan County Coroner Marcy Patterson found the unrefrigerated corpse in the embalming room of Heinz Funeral Home. She contacted the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, the state agency that oversees funeral directors, and filed a complaint. 

IDFPR took no immediate action against the funeral home director Albert August “Gus” Heinz, allowing him to continue to handle arrangements for grieving and unsuspecting families. 

Patterson followed up on her complaint in June after receiving a call from another family. She once again asked IDFPR to intervene. 

“I appreciate that a prosecutor needs time to review something, I really do, but we have families that are suffering because of this guy so … Is there a timeline of when it might be done?” she wrote in an email obtained by Capitol News Illinois.

It wasn’t until Oct. 5 – days after another local coroner went public with what he found at the funeral home – that Heinz agreed to allow the agency to revoke his funeral director license.

In a written response to questions, the agency stated that if it took immediate action against Heinz’s license, it would have only had 30 days to complete an investigation and present a case for discipline.

“IDFPR is committed to following due process and has a thorough review process when it receives a complaint against licensees in all professions,” the statement read.  

But the agency’s Oct. 5 notice of disciplinary action stated that the permanent revocation of Heinz’s license was due to “vital records non-compliance, professional incompetence or untrustworthiness in funeral practice, taking undue advantage of clients amounting to perpetration of fraud, performing any act or practice that violates funeral regulations, unprofessional conduct and charging for professional services not rendered.”

 

The March allegations

When a Morgan County man passed away on Jan. 2, 2023, at Jacksonville Memorial Hospital, his family hired Heinz, who operated Family Care Cremation, to handle the cremation. After weeks of trying to talk to Heinz, the family became “aggravated and suspicious,” the deceased man’s son said in an email to Patterson.

The son sent Patterson screenshots of his text message exchanges with Heinz beginning in February, asking about the delay. In his text message responses, Heinz said the doctor needed to sign the death certificate and was out of town. Heinz said that he had the flu. Heinz promised to return the son’s call, then promised that the cremation would be completed, and the son could pick up the remains in two days. Heinz offered to pay gas money “for the headaches.” 

In early March, the son contacted Patterson, asking for help. 

On March 8, Patterson went to Carlinville.

She found the man’s body in an embalming room. 

“I learned that (the man) was not cremated and was kept in a non-climate-controlled storage for weeks…,” Patterson wrote in her complaint to IDFPR. “The care of the remains is unacceptable and criminal in nature.”

She called the Illinois attorney general and Carlinville police, and she filed a complaint with IDFPR. 

In the letter confirming receipt of her complaint, IDFPR noted that all information collected by the department during an investigation of a licensee is confidential and cannot be publicly disclosed.

Patterson handled the cremation herself, although Heinz had already been paid.

On April 3, IDFPR investigator Todd Agans sent Patterson an email asking for photos of the remains removed from Heinz’s possession. 

In June, Patterson reached out to Agans to follow up after another family had come to her about Heinz.

“I wish I could give you an answer,” Agans replied. “Unfortunately, once I have finished the investigation and refer it to prosecution, I am completely out of the loop.”

 

‘Daddy’s Girl’

Rebecca Zillion is a self-professed daddy’s girl. When her father, Patrick Williams, died in June after a long battle with cancer, she was devastated. 

After his death, Zillion found out that her father had prepaid for his cremation with Family Care Cremations, which offered low-cost cremations for about $1,300. Williams was familiar with Family Care, which had handled another family member’s cremation, Zillion said. 

But this time, the problems started immediately. When Heinz failed to deliver her father’s cremated remains, Zillion drove to Carlinville to pick them up from Heinz Funeral Home on June 24. 

Zillion left that day with what she thought were Williams’ cremains and the family divided them up among Williams’ children and grandchildren. The family decided to spread the ashes at some of William’s favorite places after a celebration of life in late September. Some of the ashes were made into necklaces, Zillion said, so they could keep Williams close. 

Just three days before Zillion picked up the cremains, Morgan County Coroner Patterson sent a follow-up email beseeching IDFPR to act after another family came to her about Heinz. 

For months after his death, Zillion grieved for her father. 

“I was not doing well. I was having a hard time,” she said.

That grief was soon compounded by horrific news. 

Zillion’s mother had gotten a call that the ashes that had hung around her neck for months and acted as a touchstone to remind her father belonged to a stranger. 

“Honestly, I was dumbfounded,” she said.

Zillion and her family returned the ashes and the necklaces to the county coroner so they could be returned to their loved ones. Zillion received her father’s ashes in October. The grieving process, she said, began all over again. 

 

Coroner goes public

Sangamon County Coroner Jim Allmon received a call on Sept. 25 – six months after his Morgan County counterpart had first complained to IDFPR – from a local hospital about a body left for weeks in its morgue. 

Allmon went to the hospital to identify the body and contact the next of kin. The relatives of the deceased told him that Heinz Funeral Home cremated the remains weeks ago and they already had the remains.

“There I was, standing beside the body in the morgue, and telling them it wasn’t true,” Allmon said.

Typically, when a body is picked up and transferred to a cremation facility, a titanium medallion containing the name of the facility and a unique identifying number is placed with the body. The crematorium keeps a record of the person and their identifying number. The medallion stays with the remains through the transfer and the cremation and is typically affixed to the bag with the remains when it is returned to the family. 

Heinz did not have his own crematorium, but he used other local crematoriums for his cremations. Those crematoriums kept records that Heinz did not have access to, allowing investigators to piece together the identities of the cremains.

Allmon checked the identity of the ashes given to the family using the titanium medallion and found they were the remains of another Sangamon County resident.

On Sept. 28, Allmon called the Carlinville police, the Macoupin County coroner and IDFPR representatives to Heinz Funeral Home, where they found three decomposing bodies in the embalming room. 

All three were unidentifiable without the use of scientific means, such as fingerprinting or dental records. 

Allmon also found dozens of containers of cremains. He already knew that at least two Sangamon County families had received the wrong ashes and that Patterson had found a decomposing body in Heinz’s embalming room in March. 

Still, Heinz was allowed to return to his apartment above that embalming room, still licensed to be a funeral director. 

“By that time, I had about a bellyful of this,” Allmon said.

The next day, Allmon went public. 

During that Friday afternoon news conference, a visibly angry Allmon told the media and the public what he had found at Heinz Funeral home the day before. After the news conference, Allmon’s phones at the coroner’s office lit up, he said, with calls from families around central Illinois that wanted to know if they had the correct remains. 

Within a week, Heinz agreed to permanently surrender his license and never seek its reinstatement by signing a consent decree with IDFPR Chief of General Prosecutions Frank Lamas and attorney Diane Para, waiving a right to a trial.

In IDFPR’s written response to media questions, they stated that “severe allegations are handled through an expedited process which is what took place on the September allegations.”

In that consent order, Heinz also agreed that his discipline would be made public. It would be the first public action taken against Heinz by IDFPR. 

 

‘Sometimes all you hear is sobbing’

While Heinz agreed to discipline in the Patterson and Allmon complaints, another complaint filed in July and revised in August remains under investigation. The department said in a statement that confidentiality regarding the complaints is required under law until disciplinary action is taken.

That meant the families, like Zillion’s, who used Heinz’s services before September could not have known about the earlier complaints that had been filed with the regulatory agency.

Law enforcement and lawyers for the families will have to determine how far back the complaints go, but sources close to the investigation told Capitol News Illinois authorities are looking into whether the mishandling of bodies dates back at least five years and numbers into the hundreds.

Allmon said his office continues to receive calls from families trying to confirm whether they have their loved one’s ashes or those of someone they do not know. He also confirmed he has made calls to families to let them know that the ashes on the mantle belong to another family.

“I’ve made difficult calls in the past, but those were some of the toughest,” Allmon said. “It is reopening a wound. Sometimes, all you hear on the other end of the line is sobbing.”

Heinz is not currently facing any criminal charges. The Illinois State Police said their investigation of the conduct is ongoing. 

The Illinois Comptroller’s Office, which has an oversight role for prepaid contracts, is in the process of transferring all prepaid contracts from Heinz Funeral Home to another funeral home in the area. A spokesperson said in a statement that they are finalizing licensing and will notify those who prepaid for their arrangements when the transfer is complete. The statement went on to say that, as of yet, the comptroller’s office had found no financial irregularities related to Heinz Funeral Home.

The funeral home, located directly across the street from the Macoupin County Courthouse, still has the gold-lettered “Heinz Funeral Home” sign on the front lawn. The website is still operational.

“The Heinz Funeral Home has been family owned for over 160 years. Providing Central Illinois with quality, compassionate and dignified funeral, and cremation services,” the website states.

The families who trusted Heinz are still struggling, Zillion said. She has formed a support group on Facebook. At least two families have requested the bodies of their loved ones be exhumed to confirm their identities. 

For others, there may be no resolution. Families unknowingly scattered ashes of the wrong loved ones, making them unrecoverable.

“This can never be made fully right,” Allmon said. 

Zillion said she’s angry. If state regulators had taken immediate action, she said, this would not have happened to her family.

“I mean, you shut down a restaurant if it has too many health code violations, but they just turned a blind eye to the way he treated our loved ones,” she said. 

 

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of print and broadcast outlets statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.

 

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Beth Hundsdorfer

Beth HundsdorferBeth Hundsdorfer

Beth has worked in journalism for 25 years starting out as an intern at KMOX radio. In 2023, Beth won her second Robert F. Kennedy journalism award with her reporting partner, Molly Parker, who joined the CNI team earlier this year for their reporting on abuse at the state-run Choate Mental Health and Developmental Center in Anna.

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