A FUNERAL HOME'S BASEMENT OF HORRORS
Four decaying bodies, one of child, are found at Gundel in Conestoga. Owner turns himself in. BY GIL SMART and BRIAN WALLACE, Staff Writers
Investigators entering a Conestoga funeral home Thursday night made a grisly discovery:
Four decomposing bodies in the basement, remains that were supposed to be cremated but never were.
Police had been hunting for the funeral director they believe responsible, but he turned himself in to county detectives Friday at about 6 p.m.
Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman announced at a Friday press conference that Benjamin M. Siar Jr., operator of the Gundel Funeral Home, would be charged with four counts of abuse of a corpse, and four counts of theft by deception, for accepting money for cremation services that were never performed.
Other charges are likely, said Stedman: "This will get much bigger, in the financial realm," he said.
"I'm not sure it's the end of the bodies," Stedman added. "I hope it is."
Siar, in a telephone interview prior to the press conference, acknowledged a "backlog" of bodies to be cremated, but blamed the Lancaster County Coroner's Office for the delays -- a claim county coroner Dr. Steve Diamantoni denied.
"I will fully take responsibility for anything I've done wrong," Siar said, but "this is just getting absurd."
Stedman identified the deceased found in the basement of the funeral home as Rosa E. Kleinhaus, age 76, who died Dec. 20; M. Elizabeth Zug, 97, who died Dec. 26; Ranasia A.R. Knight, 2, who died Jan. 12; and Sandra J. Hotchkiss, 71, who died Jan. 21.
Only one body was stored in a cooling unit, Stedman said. Two were lying on a table, and another was in a cardboard box in the basement of the Conestoga mortuary at 3225 Main St.
According to the affidavit, a member of the Kleinhaus family contacted Lancaster city police after seeing a Jan. 27 story in the Sunday News about problems at Gundel. Brian Kleinhaus told police his mother had prepaid more than $5,000 in funeral expenses. She was supposed to be cremated after her death Dec. 20 at Conestoga View Nursing Home in Lancaster -- but he never got the ashes. He told police he believed his brother had been given the ashes, but he called his brother, who said he didn't have them and didn't know where they were.
That complaint prompted city police, joined by investigators from the district attorney's office and others from Southern Regional Police, to cordon off and search the funeral home Thursday evening, where they "found the decomposing remains" of the four bodies.
Stedman said investigators also searched a former Gundel mortuary at 415 N. Duke St., but found no bodies there.
Stedman said Siar accepted more than $13,000 from the four families for funeral and cremation services.
According to the affidavit, the daughter of M. Elizabeth Zug was provided with an urn at the time of service "that was represented as containing her mother's ashes." The urn was interred at the end of the service, and the daughter, Sharon Willis, said she did not check to see if the urn contained the ashes.
The daughter of Sandra J. Hotchkiss, Pamela Erb of Willow Street, told investigators that she paid Siar $2,000 for services, but that she had not received her mother's ashes, death certificates or her jewelry, according to the affidavit.
Stedman, who called the case "unusually disturbing," said investigators are interested in talking to anyone who might have worked for the funeral home recently or have any knowledge of the case. He said investigators continue to receive calls and complaints from former Gundel customers.
He said additional charges could involve prepayments Siar accepted but might not have forwarded to the insurance company he utilized.
"Due to the time and complexity of this case we have not had time to put charges together," said Stedman, but he said anyone who prepaid for funeral services, especially within the past year, should contact his office.
Founded by Oscar Gundel in 1945, the funeral home was sold to Siar in the mid-2000s, and the Gundel family is no longer involved.
In a telephone interview Friday morning with a reporter, Siar said he has received death threats as a result of news articles about troubles at his Conestoga funeral home.
He acknowledged that he had fallen behind on cremations. All cremations must be authorized by the county coroner, he noted; Siar said he tried repeatedly to get the coroner to sign off, but he couldn't get a response.
"I was getting the secretary at the coroner's office," he said. "I said, I have a [body], I need to get her cremated, but I wasn't getting any answers."
Coroner Diamantoni rejected Siar's account of events: "It is untrue that he was trying to get authorization and we simply didn't give it to him."
The coroner said he did refuse to authorize two cremations because of irregularities in the requests.
"Generally speaking, we get (cremation) requests within a day or so of people dying," Diamantoni said. "But in this case, (Siar) was requesting authorization to cremate the bodies of individuals who died several weeks ago.
"We respond to cremation authorizations every day, and most of the time we'll have those authorizations back within three or four hours," he said. "It's not a situation where we would ever drag our feet -- unless we had reason to suspect questionable circumstances."
In addition, Diamantoni said, the lag between the deaths and cremation requests concerned him because he knew the Pennsylvania State Board of Funeral Directors had launched an investigation into Gundel's operations.
At Thursday's press conference, Stedman said officials from the board had assisted in the investigation; but Ronald G. Ruman, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of State, which includes the Board of Funeral Directors, said that by law he "cannot confirm or deny whether an investigation is taking place. I can only release information if and when the board takes formal action."
The Jan. 27 Sunday News article detailed complaints by some Gundel customers and some suppliers who said Siar had mishandled remains or money, and was impossible to reach. A Leola burial vault company sued the funeral home, claiming nearly $21,000 in unpaid bills, but Siar still hasn't been served with a copy of the complaint because officials had been unable to find him.
Southern Regional Police and county investigators sealed off the funeral home Thursday evening and worked inside the building that night and into Friday morning.
John Fiorill, chief of Southern Regional Police Department, said his department had received three complaints about the funeral home since Jan. 15.
Two were "of a financial nature," and one involved concerns about how a loved one's remains were treated, he said.
Fiorill declined to elaborate.
"The newspaper article apparently caused some alarm among folks, and they started to question what was going on," he said.
Conestoga residents expressed sadness over the state of their town's funeral home -- an institution dating to the 1800s, according to Tom Grassel, the unofficial "mayor of Conestoga."
"I have a heavy heart for the place," said Grassel, who officiated at numerous funeral services at the home over the years. "I sure don't want the establishment to leave Conestoga. It's a very small town, and it was one of the landmarks."
Grassel said he had no problems with Siar, but he did notice "a general decline" in the funeral home's operations several months ago.
"I saw it going downhill," Grassel said. "Six months ago, the help all quit. Almost everybody."
He declined to elaborate or say why he thinks the funeral home may have run into trouble.
"Undertakers are always considered on a higher level, like doctors and preachers, but they're human beings like everyone else," Grassel said.
Resident Judy Leaman said she was surprised to learn of the problems at Gundel.
The funeral home handled her husband's burial in 2004, she said, "and I didn't have any kind of problems."
"The families that are going through this really don't need to have this on their plates," said Leaman, who was eating breakfast Friday at Conestoga Wagon Restaurant, about a quarter mile from Gundel's.
"It's very unfortunate," said fellow patron Joe Brackin.
"We have a lot of really nice people in the Conestoga area and all around, and this sheds kind of a dark light on a wonderful place," he said.
Neither Brackin nor Leaman know anyone personally impacted by the recent problems, they said.
"Our hearts go out to those who are affected by this," Brackin said.
The funeral operation was evicted from its second location at 415 N. Duke St. in Lancaster in December and consolidated operations in Conestoga. But in Friday's interview, Siar acknowledged the funeral home's problems continued to snowball.
He blamed it on the departure of a longtime employee who moved to New Jersey to be near an ailing mother.
"I haven't recovered since then," he said. "She was 50, 60 percent of the business" and handled such tasks as accounts receivable.
"I have people who owe me $200,000," Siar said. "If I'm not paying the bills, it's because someone hasn't paid me."
Siar said he's tried to fill the position, but good help has been hard to find.
He said he worries about losing his funeral director's license.
"I have no idea what I'd do if that happened," Siar said. "This is what God led me to do, this is what I'm supposed to be doing on this earth.
"If I were an evil person, I just might have ended it all at this point," he said. "But I'm desperately trying to do the right thing here."
Brett Hambright contributed to this report.