PORT ANGELES — The state Department of Licensing has fined Mount Angeles Memorial Park and Crematory owner Danny Wakefield $12,500 for violating state law on removing and reprocessing cremains without permission of next of kin.
The Department of Licensing (DOL) in an Nov. 6 negotiated, agreed order, determined that the mortuary engaged in unprofessional conduct because it was unauthorized to reprocess the cremains, which an employee said were those of indigent decedents, at the 45 Monroe Road facility east of Port Angeles.
“The remains were removed from the mausoleum, reprocessed to a finer consistency, and metals removed prior to receiving a court order or consent from the next of kin and without providing notice to the next of kin before removing them from a place of interment,” according to the order, issued by the DOL’s state Funeral and Cemetery Board.
“Thus, this conduct violates RCW 68.50.140(3) (specifically, the place of interment was opened with the intent to remove, not the intent to sell),” according to the order.
It is not illegal to recycle cremains, according to state law, but reprocessing the cremains without authorization is “incompetence, negligence or malpractice,” the order said.
Violation of the RCW is a Class C felony.
Wakefield paid the fine “as soon as I got the final order,” he said Wednesday.
“No one is perfect. Everyone learns as they go along.”
Wakefield, who lives in Utah, also owns Dungeness and Sequim View cemeteries.
He and his brother, Chris Price, purchased the funeral homes and cemeteries in mid-June, 2014.
The DOL imposed the fine and stayed suspending the mortuary’s Cemetery Certificate of Authority on condition Wakefield not engage in further “unprofessional conduct” for five years, according to the order.
According to the order, which was the result of settlement negotiations between the DOL and Wakefield, the cremains were being reprocessed to a fine consistency “in anticipation of determining the cremains were abandoned.”
“We were hoping to find someone to scatter them or we were going to scatter them,” Wakefield said Wednesday.
“Our intent was to go ahead and organize them and prepare them to give to the family in a fashion that would be presentable.”
Decedents were buried with metal and other objects that were recycled, Wakefield told a DOL compliance program official in a Sept. 15, 2015, email.
The materials were valued at “not more than $300” and were recycled with other decedents’ remains, Wakefield said.
Wakefield told Pamela Griese of the DOL that “revenue received from the crematory metal recycling would offset the postage fees for the notification process of abandoned cremated remains” and that the cremains were reprocessed “for scattering purposes,” according to her June 12 memo on her telephone conversation with him.
The recycling of the materials in the reprocessed remains should have been disclosed to the decedents’ next of kin, the DOL said.
The cremains were removed from the mausoleum so the urns could be better organized, not to profit from recycled material, Wakefield said.
“The intent was to organize a situation that we came upon that was not properly organized in my opinion,” he said.
It was not worth the time or expense to challenge the agency, Wakefield said.
“Is it realistic that I say, ‘No, I’m not going sign it?’
“Or I can move on, and don’t get to decide what the terms are like,” he said.
“There’s a big difference between someone removing cremains from a cemetery establishment with the intent to try to enrich themselves.
“That’s totally different than a cemetery establishment saying hey, this is not organized in a way we feel comfortable with.”
The order cited a June 12, 2015, written statement by Wakefield in which he said the cremains were reprocessed to remove “materials not original to a decedent’s corpus, such as nails, staples, screws or other implants,” according to Wakefield’s statement, obtained last week by Peninsula Daily News in a public records request for investigative files on the case.
“Knowing that there are many places where remains may be scattered, I do not wish for anyone to be alarmed or otherwise injured should they walk upon ground where remains had previously been scattered,” Wakefield said in the statement.
The agreed order was the result of an investigation by the DOL’s Business and Professional Division, Funeral and Cemetery Unit, which was following up on an anonymous complaint.
According to investigator Aaron Hauenstein’s Aug. 5, 2015, report, the complaint alleged the cemetery had removed urns from the crypt “for the purpose of reprocessing the cremated remains to recover crematory metals for the purpose of recycling for profit.”
Hauenstein visited the cemetery June 11, 2015, to conduct an annual inspection and investigate the complaint, he said.
He saw urns in the shop “stacked on top of each other consistent to the allegations from the anonymous complaint,” he said. At least 90 urn boxes were on a table and desk at the shop, according to a photograph in his report.
In his report, Hauenstein listed 167 urns in the shop, 12 of which were being reprocessed and dated to 1976.
Crematory Manager Michael Powells told Hauenstein the urns were being inventoried to obtain an accurate accounting and that the cemetery was going to try to notify next of kin to return the cremains or scatter them.
Powells told him the cremains were indigent.
“I told Mr. Powells that if the cremated remains were from decedents that were indigent, that meant there was no family to contact,” Hauenstein said.
Wakefield said in a July 18, 2015, email to the DOL that records of the deceased can be wrong.
“To the contention that infallible records could be obtained and relied upon at a funeral or cemetery office, thereby invalidating the need to inventory these remains, I rebut with personal experience of witnessing unintentional mapping discrepancies, incorrectly or inadequately trusted monies and other evidences of error or mismanagement,” he said.
DOL Case Manager Ron Messenger disputed Wakefield’s reasoning.
“While there is logic in the reasons for identifying and recording the cremated remains contained int he said crypts, I fell this could have been accomplished at the crypt site with the need to actually remove any urns to another location for identification purposes as rare,” Messenger said in a Sept. 16, 2015, memo.
One of the urns Hauenstein and the investigator who accompanied him inventoried contained a plastic bag with jewelry, Hauenstein said.
Wakefield said in the June 18, 2015, email that a diamond ring and necklace that Hauenstein found had already been added to the mortuary’s inventory when Hauenstein found the items, and that Hauenstein was told that at the time.
“It was insinuated to me that we were ‘grave-robbers,’ ” Wakefield said.
“I make note of this because it shows that the motive and intent of ‘grave-robbing’ ascribed was not the motive or intent with which we carried out this inventorying process.”
According to state law, Clallam County must provide “for the disposition of the remains of any indigent person, including a recipient of public assistance who dies within the county and whose body is unclaimed by relatives or church organization.”
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].