At least 80 families have received wrong remains, according to coroner
By BETH HUNDSDORFER
Capitol News Illinois
The wrong cremains were buried in a national cemetery. Bodies cremated under the wrong name. The wrong ashes returned to families from coast to coast.
An investigation into the mishandling of human remains has affected at least 80 families so far and continues to ripple out from the epicenter, Heinz Funeral Home in Carlinville.
At Camp Butler National Cemetery where 32,000 military veterans are laid to rest, authorities exhumed five graves to remove cremated remains buried under the wrong name.
While Sangamon County Coroner Jim Allmon – who brought to light the misdeeds of August “Gus” Heinz, the funeral home’s operator – does not have a complete count of families affected, he said he knows of more than 80 cases where loved ones received the wrong cremains. To date, Allmon said, there have been at least nine exhumations, including the five at Camp Butler. Some of the cases go back to 2019.
“We have received hundreds of calls from families since this investigation started. A lot of those people want to know if they have the right ashes or not but, unfortunately, they have already spread the ashes or buried them. We aren’t pulling ashes out of the ground unless we know for sure the wrong ashes were buried.” Allmon said.
While the state had known for months about allegations against Heinz, it wasn’t until October 2023, after Allmon went public with concerns about the funeral director, that Heinz and the state agreed to a disciplinary plan. An Oct. 5 notice of disciplinary action stated Heinz agreed to a permanent revocation of his license 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.”
On Thursday, Sen. Doris Turner, D-Springfield, introduced legislation mandates that a funeral director must place a unique identifier on the deceased’s body, body bag, and any body part, organ, or tissue separated from the deceased to be used in nontransplant organ donation. A director must also maintain chain of custody documentation for all dead bodies and human remains.
Turner’s bill codifies what for most funeral directors is already industry best practice.
Typically, when a body is picked up and transferred for cremation, 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 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 a crematorium at his funeral home but did contract with at least two local crematoriums to do cremations.
Allmon said he has tracked the remains to the identities by comparing the numbers on those titanium tags to records kept at those crematoriums but acknowledged that there may have been instances when the tags were switched.
Cremains cannot be identified by using DNA because they are degraded during the incineration process.
As the investigation progressed, Allmon said he received ashes from a family in Oregon. Others have come in from Missouri, Iowa, Kansas and Massachusetts.
“This has been nationwide and statewide and it’s ongoing. I’m not real sure where it ends,” Allmon said at a Thursday news conference. “Yeah. I’ve said that a lot. But it seems to me once we have somebody’s cremains that we know should have been buried somewhere. We go to that grave. We do the disinterment, and we find another set of remains that were inside of that grave, then we notify that family. When we call that family, that family already has cremains.”
Dillion and Elizabeth Bricker appeared at the news conference on Thursday as well. The Brickers said Heinz gave them the cremated remains said to belong to their mother, Gina Bricker, that were displayed at a memorial service.
“Some came from states away to say goodbye to my mother, only to find out it wasn’t her. She was still in the hospital morgue where she laid on a table alone for almost close to a month,” Dillion Bricker said.
Springfield attorneys Jay Sheehan, Don Craven and Joe Craven filed a class action lawsuit against Heinz, his father and former business partner, Jon Clayton Heinz and Heinz Funeral Home, on behalf of those who received the wrong cremains. The Cravens also serve as legal counsel for Capitol News Illinois.
The case involved the cremains of George L. Woods Jr., George’s widow LeeAnn Woods, and daughters, Meghan and Ashleen Woods, who live in Portland, Oregon. The Woods selected Heinz for burial and cremation of George Woods, but they became anxious and suspicious after Heinz failed to send the ashes for weeks or file the death certificate. After many calls, the Woods family finally received the cremains they thought belonged to George Woods, the suit stated, but later learned that they received the wrong cremains.
The Woods family “now have no idea what happened to the remains of their loved ones,” the suit stated.
In addition, at least three other lawsuits have been filed in Sangamon County.
No criminal charges have been filed against Heinz to date. The Illinois State Police investigation is ongoing, a spokesman said. It’s been difficult to determine how to charge Heinz, one prosecutor said, under current laws.
Republican Sen. Steve McClure, of Springfield, proposed his own legislation to criminalize the mishandling of human remains, including providing inaccurate documentation of the identity of human remains, illegally storing human remains and providing remains that are intentionally misidentified. Under Senate Bill 3263, a violation of these standards would be a Class 4 felony, punishable by up to five years in prison.
Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation investigators knew for six months about problems at Heinz Funeral Home. Morgan County Coroner Marci Patterson filed a complaint with IDFPR when one of her deputies went to Carlinville and found a decomposing corpse in a prep room.
IDFPR did not take immediate action against Heinz’s funeral director license because if they suspended the license, the agency would have only 30 days to complete an investigation and go to trial, a spokesperson said.
Without any restriction on his license, Heinz continued to operate, continuing to accept bodies for burial and cremation. IDFPR complaints are confidential until action is taken, so those using Heinz Funeral Home for funeral services would have no idea the business had complaints.
In cases where IDFPR does take enforcement action against a licensee, the spokesman said the enforcement actions are published once a month. The public can also look on the IDFPR website to determine whether a funeral director has been disciplined in the past. But the specific conduct leading to the discipline can only be obtained by filing a Freedom of Information Act request.
Capitol News Illinois obtained three years’ worth of disciplinary action taken against about 30 funeral home directors. Four licenses were revoked and two were indefinitely suspended
Other cases included relatively minor infractions, mostly for failure to pay state taxes or child support or failure to complete continuing education requirements. More serious infractions included losing a body in transit, driving under the influence of alcohol while transporting a baby’s body across state lines and disposing of a body while there was an ongoing coroner’s investigation into the death.
In another similar case in 2010, Illinois funeral director Marcee Dane was accused of giving a family the wrong remains. Dane pleaded guilty to desecration of human remains, a violation of the Cemetery Protection Act. Dane was sentenced to 30 days in county jail and fined $10,000.
Dane surrendered her license, but requested reinstatement which was granted in 2019. IDFPR imposed fines and fees and one year of probation. Her license is currently active.
She declined to comment for this story.
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.