Funeral director's troubles mounted
Charged after four decaying corpses were found in his basement, he faced an arrest warrant from DUI case, fines. By Gil Smart, Staff Writer firstname.lastname@example.org
Gundel Funeral Home owner Benjamin M. Siar Jr. remains in Lancaster County Prison after being unable to post $250,000 bail in a case involving four decaying bodies found in the basement of his Conestoga mortuary.
But the charges filed Friday night weren't Siar's first brush with the law.
Even as Siar turned himself in to authorities Friday evening, there was another warrant for his arrest, for a parole violation stemming from a 2010 DUI conviction. That bench warrant was issued last Monday.
In addition, Friday marked the day Siar was supposed to pay fines stemming from an Oct. 8 arrest for public drunkenness, a charge to which he pleaded guilty Oct. 30. It was his second guilty plea for public drunkenness in three years.
And civil cases filed in local magisterial district courts late last year by a local gravedigger and the Gundel Funeral Home's former landlord in Lancaster city resulted in judgments of nearly $13,000 against Siar -- likely intensifying the financial pressure on the embattled funeral director.
On Saturday, Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman said there were no new developments in the investigation of Siar, charged Friday with four counts of abuse of a corpse and four counts of theft by deception.
There are, Stedman said, "no new bodies."
Found in the basement of the funeral home during a search Thursday evening were the bodies of 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; all were in what he called an advanced state of decomposition.
Stedman said Siar took money from family members to cremate the remains, but never did so.
Siar blamed the "backlog" of bodies in his Conestoga mortuary on Lancaster County Coroner Dr. Steve Diamantoni's office, which he said refused to authorize the cremations. In an interview Thursday, Diamantoni said he did refuse to authorize two cremations, because several weeks had passed between the person's death and Siar's seeking permission to cremate the remains.
The delay in cremations also might be related to a $21,000 lawsuit filed against Gundel Funeral Home in December by a Leola firm that had, in the past, conducted cremations for Siar.
Siar's preliminary hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. Friday before Magisterial District Judge Cheryl N. Hartman in Lancaster.
Stedman has said additional charges are likely, relating to money Siar allegedly took from families for prepaid funerals but never forwarded to the insurance company he utilized. In an interview with WGAL Friday morning before he turned himself in, Siar acknowledged that he had used some prepaid funeral money for expenses.
In two separate interviews with a Lancaster Newspapers reporter over the past week, Siar alluded to financial difficulties, saying he couldn't pay some suppliers because customers hadn't paid him.
Siar owned thousands to local florists, cemeteries and others who performed services for his funeral home.
The Rev. Christopher Rankin, pastor at East Petersburg's Trinity United Church of Christ, said he did a funeral at Gundel's in November. Twice, he said, Gundel's check for payment bounced.
"The day of the funeral [Siar] was very strange," said Rankin, in an email. Siar, he said, "told the family it wasn't his job to give me a check."
On Nov. 12, Barry Rankin, of Conestoga, filed a civil complaint in Magisterial District Court, seeking $600. Rankin reportedly helps prepare gravesites for burial. Rankin ultimately won a default judgment from Millersville District Judge Joshua R. Keller of $737.55 that also included fees and costs.
A phone message to Barry Rankin on Saturday was not returned.
Just two weeks later, on Nov. 26, the landlord of the former Gundel Funeral Home at 415 N. Duke St. in Lancaster city filed a landlord/tenant complaint in Magisterial District Court in Lancaster. The landlord -- Gundel Realty, owned by members of the Gundel family who sold the funeral home business to Siar in the mid-2000s -- sought $12,000 in rent that was in arrears, according to the docket sheet. On Dec. 5, Magisterial District Judge Janice Jimenez ruled in favor of Gundel Realty, and required Gundel Funeral Home to pay an additional $173.50 in costs.
Subsequently, on Dec. 21, Jimenez issued an order for possession -- evicting the funeral home from the site.
Also in December, Evans Eagle Burial Vaults Inc., Leola, filed a lawsuit in the Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas against Gundel Funeral Home, alleging that Siar's company had amassed $20,998 in unpaid bills. Some of those bills were for cremations performed by the company.
Meanwhile, Siar was dealing with other legal issues.
According to court records, Siar was charged with DUI and careless driving by Lancaster city police on April 21, 2010. That case was waived to the Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas. Siar was initially accepted into the state's Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program, often used for first-time offenders for nonviolent crimes, such as driving under the influence of alcohol.
But court records show his ARD status was revoked, and Siar subsequently pleaded guilty July 3, 2012, and was sentenced to between 72 hours and six months in jail.
Docket sheets available in state's online database do not indicate how much time he actually served. An attorney with the Harrisburg firm that defended Siar, Shaffer & Engle, said the firm does not comment on past or present clients.
On Nov. 22, 2010, Siar was charged with public drunkenness by Lancaster city police, a charge to which he pleaded guilty nine days later, and paid $187 in fines. Less than two years later, he was again cited for public drunkenness. Friday -- the day he turned himself in to face the charges related to the bodies in the funeral home basement -- he was scheduled to pay $215.50 in fines for that offense.n