A mother's terrible days
Losing her daughter was followed by her former boyfriend's arrest. And then, she learned the girl's body was not taken care of by a funeral director.
By Cindy Stauffer Staff Writer firstname.lastname@example.org
Jessica Bachman's first worst day was Jan. 12, when her spirited 2-year-old daughter, Ranasia Knight, died in a local emergency room from what Bachman thought was a fall down the stairs.
Her second worst day was Jan. 14, when Bachman's former boyfriend, Lester Johnson, was arrested for Ranasia's death, after admitting he punched and kicked the child, blinding her in one eye and fatally injuring her.
Bachman's third worst day was Feb. 1, when police knocked on the front door of her East Ross Street home and told her that they had found Ranasia's body on a table in the basement of a local funeral home.
The child's badly decomposed body apparently had lain in the basement for days, unattended, after a friend of Bachman's paid a local funeral director $400 for Ranasia's final arrangements.
Benjamin M. Siar Jr., the operator of Gundel Funeral Home, had promised to have Ranasia cremated and deliver her ashes to Bachman, she said.
But he acted strangely throughout the process, taking the payment on a city street, avoiding her calls, making excuses for delays and failing to show up at her house, she said.
Bachman's face crumples and her voice grows angry. She does not know whether to rage or sob.
Losing her child was cruel enough. Now this?
"This man" -- that's what Bachman calls Siar now -- "knew all the stuff I'm going through.
"It's bad enough that I had to lose my daughter to a murder. This man came to my house. This man told me my daughter was in good hands."
Authorities say that instead of taking care of her daughter, Siar abandoned the child's body, and three others.
Authorities found the bodies during a raid of Siar's Conestoga funeral home. They went to the home after they heard claims from others that Siar had taken their money but not followed through with cremations.
Siar now is in Lancaster County Prison, facing numerous charges, including abuse of a corpse.
On Friday, the Pennsylvania Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs filed multiple charges of professional misconduct against the funeral director with the State Board of Funeral Directors.
Another funeral home, The Groffs Family Funeral & Cremation Services Inc., took over Ranasia's care last week, at no charge. They cremated the child's body and delivered her ashes to Bachman in an urn, after placing some in a small heart-shaped locket the young mother now wears around her neck.
She is grateful for their help.
"I just want her to rest in peace," she said.
Jessica Bachman has walked a rough road in her 25 years.
She spent part of her teens in foster care. She dropped out of high school after the 11th grade and was pregnant by the age of 18.
She has three children to different fathers. She has worked, but only at local fast-food restaurants, and now relies on government assistance.
Her landlord recently asked her to leave her home, after she did not pay her January rent.
Her remaining children, two sons ages almost 1 and 6, were removed from her home by the county Children & Youth Agency after Ranasia's death.
She gets to see them every two weeks and has a court date about their care in April.
"My kids are my world," she said, adding that she never saw Johnson harm any of her children and would never have allowed it. "I don't know how I am dealing with this. There are times when I'm all right and there's times when I break down."
After Ranasia's death, Bachman got through the days by focusing on taking care of her funeral.
Bachman chose Gundel to handle the arrangements because the home had done the funeral of Diana Spencer, a local woman who was shot after getting caught in a feud between two gangs.
"I went to her funeral, and I liked it," Bachman said.
After Ranasia's death, Bachman called Siar, who came to her home to talk.
Bachman's biggest wish was to have a locket, filled with some of her daughter's ashes.
Siar told Bachman it would cost about $300 for the cremation of her daughter's body, a death certificate and an obituary to be published in Lancaster Newspapers.
A necklace, she said he told her, would be another $100, for a total of $400, which would not include the cost of an urn.
Bachman did not have the money to pay Siar, but a friend, whom she declined to name, volunteered to help. Siar said he needed the money by that Tuesday, Jan. 15.
Her friend set up a meeting with Siar on a street in Lancaster, Bachman said. The two pulled up beside each other in their vehicles and Bachman's friend handed money from her window into Siar's window, she said.
"It was a car-to-car transaction," Bachman said. "She gave him $400 in cash."
Siar wasn't pleased with the amount, her friend told her.
"He said, 'I really wanted $550,' but she said, 'You made the arrangement for $400.' He said, 'OK,' " Bachman said.
Siar then wrote up a receipt on a piece of notebook paper, gave it to Bachman's friend and drove away with the money.
The next days were confusing. There was a mix-up about the time of Ranasia's funeral service, and Siar did not return Bachman's calls at first, she said.
"It was hard to keep in contact with him," she said.
Siar finally got back to her. The service was on. Be there at 2 p.m.
Ranasia's funeral was held Jan. 23 at In the Light Ministries, a South Shippen Street church.
Her small body, which had been embalmed, was laid out in an open, white casket that Siar had lent Bachman for the service, which went just the way Bachman wanted.
But out in the lobby, things got off kilter again.
"All I wanted was my daughter's ashes," she said.
Siar, and family members, were pushing Bachman to consider a burial, and Siar delayed the cremation, saying she should take a few days to make a decision.
That Friday, she told him, again, that she wanted the cremation to take place. Siar said it would happen Monday, Jan. 28.
But Monday passed. So did Tuesday. Then Wednesday. And there was no word from Siar, and no delivery of her daughter's ashes, she said.
Finally on Thursday, Jan. 31 -- a full 19 days after her daughter's death and the day of Bachman's 25th birthday -- she called Siar. Where were her daughter's ashes?
"He said, 'She's due to be cremated today. A lot of stuff is going on,' " Bachman said he told her.
He said he would come to her home the next day, to finalize her urn and necklace choices.
"The whole time he was telling me my daughter was in good hands with him," Bachman said.
Later that day, Bachman heard some unsettling news.
Police were looking into allegations by others that Siar had not taken care of the cremations of their family members. She called police herself, to tell them she was in the same boat.
Siar told a Lancaster Newspapers reporter at that time, "That 2-year-old girl who was beaten to death, I did that funeral for free. It's disheartening to see all the negative things about me and there's no mention of that ... I bent over backwards for that child. I gave a free casket to that family."
Bachman said that was not true. Her friend paid Siar for his services, and he had only loaned them the use of the casket, not given it to them.
The next day, she said, Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman and a city police detective came to Bachman's house.
"I saw them at the door and I'm like, 'Oh my god, this has to be about Nasia,' " she said.
The officials told her that they had searched Gundel's Conestoga funeral home and found her daughter's body, which never had been cremated.
The other bodies were of a trio of women ranging from 71 to 97 years old. One had died Dec. 20, more than a month earlier. All of the bodies now were at the county forensic center.
The officials gave Bachman the names of a few local funeral homes who had volunteered to help the affected families.
And they told her if Siar arrived for his appointment at her home that day, she should call them immediately.
Siar never showed up. He turned himself into authorities later that night and remains unable to make his $250,000 bail on charges including theft by deception.
In interviews before his arrest, Siar blamed the backlog of bodies at the funeral home on the county coroner, Dr. Stephen Diamantoni, saying the coroner refused to authorize the cremations. Diamantoni said he did refuse to authorize the cremation of one of the bodies, because of irregularities at the home, but he never received a request to authorize the cremation of Ranasia.
Bachman does not know what to think about anything anymore, she said. Life seems so mixed up since Ranasia's death.
"What's wrong with people nowadays?" she asked. "You can't trust no one."
Bachman said she believes her daughter's spirit is free, but she just can't get her daughter's body out of her mind.
"I pushed out that body. I raised that body. I bathed that body," she said, her voice growing agitated. "I washed that body. I took care of that body. I clothed that body. I fed that body.
"You don't disrespect my daughter's body. You left my daughter's body to rot on a table?"
Yes, she is lost and sick with grief, but there is one thing she is sure about, she said. And that is what should happen to Siar.
"Your charge should be murder, too."n