A Lancaster County judge sentenced former funeral director Benjamin Siar, Jr., to additional prison time Wednesday, saying that the macabre scene investigators discovered inside his Conestoga funeral home was like “something from a horror movie or some third-world country.”
Earlier this month Judge Dennis Reinaker sentenced Siar to 5-10 years on 88 felony and misdemeanor counts of theft and deceptive business practices. Wednesday, despite Siar’s pleas, Reinaker added an additional 1-4 years to Siar’s sentence on four counts of abuse of a corpse.
Siar’s attorney, Alan Goldberg, said the sentence “was a little longer than I expected.” He did not know whether Siar planned to appeal the ruling.
Prosecutors said Siar, 42, took payment to cremate the bodies of four people in late 2012 and early 2013 but failed to do so. Siar admitted his business was faltering financially, but that “there was never any malice, never did I say ‘Let’s just put this body here and forget about it.’ ”
Yet while Siar apologized to the aggrieved families in court, prosecutors played recordings of four phone calls Siar had made in prison after his arrest where he seemed to make light of the case, including a May 5, 2013, phone call where he told a woman, “I bent a lot of [expletive] rules, some of the rules, I just broke ‘em in half... I took that rule book and wiped my [expletive] with it.”
After families whose loved ones’ remains were mishandled by Siar complained to the police and local media in January 2013, District Attorney Craig Stedman opened a probe of Siar and Gundel Funeral Home. On Feb. 1, 2013, investigators served a warrant at the Conestoga funeral home and found four decomposing bodies in the basement.
They were the remains of Rosa E. Kleinhaus, age 76, who died Dec. 20, 2012; M. Elizabeth Zug, 97, who died Dec. 26, 2012; Ranasia A.R. Knight, 2, who died Jan. 12, 2013; and Sandra J. Hotchkiss, 71, who died Jan. 21, 2013.
Only one body was stored in a cooling unit, police said. Two were lying on a table, and another was in a cardboard box in the basement of the mortuary.
In court Wednesday Siar protested that the conditions weren’t as bad as media reports made them out to be. The table was a mortuary table, he said; cardboard boxes are typically placed inside caskets.
The families of the four people whose remains were discovered in the funeral home basement submitted victim impact statements to Judge Reinaker, asking him to impose the maximum sentence.
Pamela Erb, the daughter of Sandra J. Hotchkiss, was the only family member to speak at the sentencing. She told Reinaker that while Siar “may someday make restitution to the many victims in this case, there’s no restitution for what he took from my mom, her dignity.”
Family members declined to speak to the media after the sentencing.
Siar spoke at length during the proceeding, seemingly annoying Reinaker when he asserted that “All I can say is that I’m sorry... some people might shrug their shoulders and say he doesn’t mean it.”
Reinaker shot back: “Based on what you said in that prison phone call, a lot of people would say that.”
At another point Siar complained that media reports made some people think the conditions in the funeral home basement were “horrible.” Replied Reinaker: “I think horrible is the word the entire community would use.”
Siar said as his business faltered financially, “I had a disaster on my hands.” In December 2012 he was evicted from a second Gundel property, at 415 N. Duke St., which he leased, for owing $12,000 in back rent; “We were moving and I had to figure out what to do with these bodies. It was a snowball effect that just got completely out of control.”
As part of the sentence, Siar must also pay restitution to his victims, which will total just over $160,000.
The Gundel Funeral Home in Conestoga was purchased in November and has since been reopened as The Gundel Chapel off Melanie B. Scheid Funeral Directors and Cremation Services.
Read complete coverage of the case here.
Related: Criminal documents against Siar