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Funeral home owner: Bodies were treated 'with utmost respect'

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2012 9:50 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — The owner of a South Shore funeral home shut down after authorities cited him for no electricity or heat insists he always treated the bodies in his care "with the utmost respect." 

Harry Carter, speaking to reporters Monday night, also stressed that authorities have not lodged any criminal charges against him because of conditions inside Carter Funeral Chapels at 2100 E. 75th St.

"They have combed every inch of this funeral home and been over it with a fine-tooth comb and have not found one thing non-compliant,'' said Harry Carter, joined by his attorney outside Carter Funeral Chapels at 2100 E. 75th St.

"Had things not been compliant, I would have left here in handcuffs instead of going home,'' Carter said.

A source said that nine bodies were inside being prepared for burial. Officials cited the owner for "failure to provide adequate shelter, protection, care and disposition of deceased human remains," according to police spokesman Dan O'Brien.

As inspectors searched inside the funeral home, angry relatives gathered outside and worried what would happen to their loved ones' remains.

Tonya Stevens said her 67-year-old uncle died of cancer on Saturday and his body was brought to the funeral home. Her family was supposed to meet at the funeral home this afternoon to finalize arrangements. "I don't understand why they are not coming out to talk."

Ezra Stevens of Chicago said he was told by police that they could be unable to talk to a funeral director. "They can't talk to us and we can't talk to them," he said. Told there were other bodies inside, he said, "I feel for those families."

Carter said all but three of the bodies had been removed by the end of the day and taken to other funeral homes, with the remaining bodies to be collected this morning.

Police officers went to the funeral home at about 3:45 a.m. Monday after receiving a call about a suspicious person in a car outside the building. They walked around the building to investigate and found a back door off its hinges, according to police spokesman John Mirabelli.

The officers walked inside to see if there had been a burglary and found three men -- two of whom were employed by the home for custodial and security work. The officers discovered there was no power or heat in the building.

Carter said two "disgruntled former workers" were in the building when police arrived. He acknowledged "problems" with his building when asked about the gas generators that still could be heard hammering away at the rear of the building, but said all of the bodies had been properly embalmed and that the number on hand when investigators arrived was a result of backlogs at local crematories.

"All businesses have their problems, even ones with thousands of employees," Carter said. "Look at GM and Chrysler."

Carter is named as the owner and operator of the funeral home in a lawsuit filed by the Federal Trade Commission last July, a civil case in which federal authorities allege Carter Funeral Chapels violated regulations by not providing clients with an itemized list of services.

Carter’s license as a funeral director and embalmer has been suspended since 2008, according to the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation records, agency spokeswoman Susan Hofer said.

Without a license, Carter could not act as a funeral director or embalm bodies, though he could still own a funeral home and hire someone with a license to perform those duties, Hofer said. State incorporation records show Carter Funeral Chapels was involuntarily dissolved in 1996.

State records say his license was suspended indefinitely in October 2008 “due to violation of regulations, untrustworthiness, embalming without prior consent and unprofessional conduct.”

Carter was disciplined by the state in 1999 for practicing with a non-renewed license and failing to take continuing education classes to keep his license current, state records indicate. In 2006, the state refused to renew his license because of unpaid state income taxes.

Carter filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection in 2009, listing among his debts $100,000 owed to a casket company. Cook County records show several collections lawsuits dating back to the late 1990s. In January 2010, Commonwealth Edison sued Carter to collect $25,213.

The utility company cannot release specifics about any customer's account, but they are concerned about all customers' health and well being and service suspension always is a last resort, according to ComEd spokesman Bennie Currie Currie.

When customers don’t pay, those costs are shared by all customers, according to Currie, who said ComEd offers a number of assistance programs to those who have difficulty paying their bills.

Among the relatives who gathered outside the home Monday to get some answers was Julia Bailey, who said she has been waiting since November for her father's ashes. "I don't even know if he's been cremated. He may be in here."

Bailey said she was initially told a doctor hadn't signed off on the death certificate. When she got that taken care of, Bailey said she was told they were waiting for permission from the crematorium. "I call every week, twice a week sometimes." Last week, she said she threatened to get a lawyer.

Leona Howard, who lives in Jacksonville, N.C., said her uncle's funeral was supposed to be Tuesday morning. "We can't talk to anyone," she said. "My concern is, will the funeral be tomorrow morning?"

She said she was in the funeral home Saturday and the heat and lights were on. She didn't have any cause for concern then, but is shocked now. "We don't know what the status is."

Members of the Howard family were finally allowed inside the funeral home for 30 to 45 minutes in the afternoon. Family members appeared upset as they left, but one relative said, "Everything's OK."

Chicago Tribune reporters Rosemary Sobol, Carlos Sadovi and Jeremy Gorner contributed.

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