Funeral home’s license suspended — a rarity in an industry with lax oversight

Funeral home’s license suspended — a rarity in an industry with lax oversight

Last month, the Nevada State Funeral Board director visited a mortuary, only to encounter bodies stacked atop one another, sheeting soaked with blood, and a corpse stored outside of refrigeration, warm to the touch.

The Henderson mortuary, Hites Funeral Home and Cremation Service, had been on the board’s radar for years before the gruesome discovery. But, as is relatively common for board cases, it hadn’t faced very harsh penalties for violating state law — that is, until Tuesday. And Hites’ involvement in the city was far-reaching: The funeral home hadn’t just worked with private families opting to use their care, but had public contracts with Clark County.

As early as 2019, the board was aware of serious concerns about Hites. Hites had mistreated indigent decedents, the board had concluded: The mortuary had mishandled bodies whose dispositions were paid for by Clark County Social Services. The county pays for the burials or cremations of those without the resources to pay. Some have no identifiable next of kin, or, often, have next of kin who cannot afford to pay for cremation or burial. Some of those bodies had been allowed to languish in storage coolers for over a year without being cremated, a pattern of delay in Social Services cases the board noted in several other earlier funeral homes’ cases. Hites had broken regulations involving sanitation in years past, too, including — mirroring the July inspection — bodily fluids that seeped onto sheets. 

As a result of those cases, filed in 2019 and settled in 2020, then-director Jim Lee’s funeral license was suspended for six months and Hites was fined $5,000. Most seriously, Hites was put on probation for three years — a punishment one board member worried was “lenient.”

The board did not take further steps, until Tuesday, when they suspended the establishment’s license, after reviewing evidence from the recent inspection.

The Nevada Board of Funeral & Cemetery Services voted to determine that Hites violated the terms of their February 2020 consent decree, the settlement over Social Services cases and sanitation that had put them on probation. Hites, a family-run funeral home in Henderson, will have their license suspended for six months, effectively shutting the establishment down — the owner suggested in the hearing that they might sell it. The board has, at least since 2015, taken similar action only once.

‘Culture of delay’

The cases for which Hites was put on probation two years ago were, director of the board Jennifer Kandt said in February 2020, more serious than similar cases the board had heard, in terms of the number of Social Services bodies and extent of the sanitary violations. Yet the punishment didn’t prevent another flurry of violations. 

In several instances at Hites, bodies of deceased individuals were stored for over a year without cremation or burial; Nevada statute requires every dead body in the state be buried or cremated within a reasonable time after death. There is a “culture of delay” among funeral homes dealing with Social Services cases, Kandt said in a board meeting in 2016. (Then, the board heard five cases alleging Social Services violations at other facilities: the problem did not begin with Hites.) Families involved in Social Services cases, if the decedent is identified and has next of kin, sometimes cannot pay. They can lose touch with the funeral home, and cause the funeral home to “push the case to the side,” Kandt said in 2016.

Hites was required to submit to inspections and, if they violated the agreement, were to have their establishment and crematory permits suspended, which is what happened.

According to the board’s meeting minutes from February 2020, one member, Lorretta Guazzini, raised concern about the consent decree. She asked for confirmation that the board “would not be suspending the establishment or crematory permits, just putting them on probation for three years.” The board’s counsel confirmed. “Lorretta Guazzini stated that the stipulated adjudication seemed lenient,” according to the minutes. Asked about the severity of the original consent decree, and Guazzini’s comment, Kandt said by email “Boards are comprised of multiple Board members and they will all have varying opinions.  We try our best to have consensus.”

‘Flies landing on the body and an intense odor’

Hites didn’t heed the rules while on probation.

Kandt became concerned last winter, when it appeared Hites was “again having bodies in their care for a long period of time,” she said at Tuesday’s hearing. Hites was required to submit reports to the board on any bodies held in their care for over 45 days; Hites indicated that the influx of bodies were Social Services cases. But at that time, Hites was not contracted with Social Services, Kandt said. They’d been removed from the contract after the 2019 allegations of poor care. During the December and January COVID surge, Social Service funeral home providers didn’t have the storage space for all of their cases, Kandt said, so Hites filled in, “But they also sat on (the bodies) longer than they should have.”

Asked whether Hites was involved with Social Services cases without a formal agreement, Mulin said “CCSS had no cases with Hites in December 2020.” (CCSS only reentered into a formal agreement with Hites in April 2021, Multin said, 2 years after dropping Hites for alleged misconduct.)

Once Kandt raised concerns, the CCSS-contracted mortuaries came to pick up approximately 90 bodies from Hites. Eric Lee, current funeral director of Hites and son of Jim Lee, whose license was suspended, attended the Tuesday hearing. Eric Lee Tuesday denied that Hites had held onto the bodies for longer than necessary.

The board had once again become concerned with Hites, and in late July 2021, Kandt appeared, unannounced, at the facility.

Upon entry, Kandt wrote in her report, “I noticed 3 bodies stacked on one gurney (two bodies on the bottom and one strapped on top of the other two).” In the coolers, too — which were all “at or near capacity” — Kandt noted that on at least one shelf, there were two bodies stacked atop one another. Stacking bodies is strictly against the law.

The staff had to spend time maneuvering the bodies in the tight space, Kandt noticed, “pulling people out into the hallway to try to get someone who is being transferred to another mortuary, and pulling people back in,” she said in the hearing, “Just because everything is so full.”

Hites is capable of holding 232 bodies, Lee said in the hearing; there were around 230 when Kandt inspected in July, according to Kandt. The county had taken back the extra refrigeration units previously released by the Coroner’s Office, Lee said, causing capacity issues when the summer surge hit.

From the July 20 state inspection report: “One of the coolers had been left slightly ajar while no one was attending to the cooler. Temperature reading was almost 60 degrees.”

Kandt, in her investigation, also found one cooler left slightly ajar, with no staff tending to it. The temperature in a body cooler cannot be above 42 degrees, and absolutely, even after temporarily being opened, cannot be above 48 degrees, according to Nevada law. The temperature reading in the cooler Kandt inspected was almost 60 degrees.

One body was outside of refrigeration entirely. “The sheeting over the body was soiled with blood, there were flies landing on the body and an intense odor,” she wrote. “The body was warm to the touch.”

Additionally, Kandt found combustible items resting against crematory chambers, a baby’s remains stored in a trap atop another tray and violations of funeral home records regulations.

Kandt returned to Hites to serve notice of the hearing two days later. She witnessed, from the parking lot, through an open door to the crematory, a partially uncovered body with the decedent’s face exposed.

Coroner’s office has cases, but no morgue

The latest case, like the prior Social Services violation, is inextricable from Clark County’s public operations. Many of the bodies crowding the facility, during the July COVID spike in Nevada, had been routed from Clark County Office of the Coroner/Medical Examiner, which had a contract with Hites. The coroner’s office handles “unnatural” deaths, including any deaths that occur unattended, or where violence, crime or suicide is suspected.

Lee said in the hearing that “the majority” of the bodies in Kandt’s inspection “would be considered coroners’ cases.” Clark County spokesperson, Dan Kulin, said, without elaboration, “We don’t believe that is accurate.”

Coroners in some counties, including Clark, lack the storage capacity to hold bodies for extended periods of time. After conducting their investigations, they must promptly outsource transportation and storage to private funeral homes. (Some other counties and cities have their own morgues.) The Clark County Coroner contracts with private funeral homes on a rotation, to transport bodies to those mortuaries, storing them until the next of kin decide to transfer them to a funeral home of choice, or to continue with their services.

For some, the process is disorienting. Staci Hess Risch, a Coloradan, was visiting her uncle in Las Vegas in August 2020 to help care for him, when he suddenly passed away —she’d known he had cancer but hadn’t expected it’d happen so quickly. She called the police, who sent the coroner’s office.

Coroner’s office staff “showed up, handed me a pamphlet, and said (Hites) is where your uncle will be going,” she said. “They didn’t give me any options, they didn’t say, ‘This is where we normally go, is there any other place you would like us to take him?’ And I might not have had those answers, but I wasn’t given an option.”

County spokesperson Kulin said the office “generally speaking” informs the family that the decedent is “expected to be brought to a specific funeral home,” but they also communicate that the body can also be sent to another funeral home of the family’s selection.

Once there, Risch had a negative experience with Hites — weeks elapsed with little communication about when her uncle’s remains would be available, and when she eventually asked about having him transferred, the cost would be over $1,000. (Eventually the family received the remains, dated a month before they’d actually received notice that they were ready.)

“I didn’t have time to put my ducks in a row,” Risch said, on preparing for her uncle’s death. “You hope that the people they send,” she said, “have your best interests at heart, or your loved one’s.” 

Until July, the coroner’s office had worked with Hites for at least five years — including after the 2020 consent decree determined Hites had broken the law. Hites was one of two funeral homes contracted to perform transport-related services for bodies, alongside Davis Funeral Homes. The contract was set to expire at the end of this year, according to documents obtained by the Current.

Asked how the county holds contractors accountable for abiding by the law and terms of the contract,  Kulin said, “Operations and performance are monitored by staff. There are also scheduled and unscheduled inspections by our office, and periodic meetings with accreditation agencies and boards.”

Hites didn’t consider notifying the coroner of their latest storage issues, Lee said in the hearing. The coroner sends out remains quickly, usually within 24 hours, and the coroner’s office has limited capacity to hold remains themselves, Lee said. But “in hindsight,” reaching out to their office “probably would’ve been a good avenue to follow,” he added. 

On July 22 the office temporarily suspended contractual services with Hites, according to the coroner’s office, after receiving notice from Kandt. “Until further notice, contractual services will be provided by another funeral home with which the coroner’s office contracts,” Kulin said in a comment to the Current. (The other funeral home, Davis, now responsible for all coroner’s cases, did not respond to questions regarding their capacity.)

Discipline is rare; transgressions aren’t

Though the board processes dozens of complaints each year, and can reach roughly ten consent decrees in a year, rarely do they suspend funeral licenses.

Kandt said by email that in the seven years she has been the executive director, “We have not suspended any other facilities, but have suspended several funeral director licenses,” and revoked one crematory and funeral establishment permit.

Two other serious cases occurred in 2015 and 2017, and only one of them resulted in permit revocation — which, out of dozens of consent decrees, suggests a high bar for serious discipline. In 2015, the board revoked Valley Cremation and Burial’s crematory license for five years, after employees were observed “hosing off a severed torso outside” and putting bloody boxes in neighborhood trash cans, among other violations. In a 2017 case, the board fined La Paloma Funeral Services but didn’t revoke their licenses, even after 16 bodies were found in an unrefrigerated warehouse.

‘Sincerest apologies’

The board voted 6-1 Tuesday to suspend Hites’ license for six months (the ‘nay’ was in favor of a lighter punishment, probation). 

What’s next for Hites and those in its care? 

Hites has 30 days to handle disposition of the bodies in their care, and is, effective immediately, prohibited from accepting new decedents. 

Anyone with a pre-need contract with Hites, Lee said, will be able to transfer their policy elsewhere, as policies are funded through insurance. 

Lee suggested the establishment might be sold. 

“We have been approached by interested parties that wish to purchase Hites funeral home so I believe that a sale of Hites funeral home could be concluded within 30 days,” he said. Kandt said the board had had multiple calls from prospective buyers, too. (In the prior meeting, Kandt said interest in opening a crematory or funeral home was booming because of covid.)

Lee did not respond to requests for comment. A Hites representative said Lee has no comment, and requested the media “appreciate our privacy in this difficult time.”

Lee takes responsibility for the actions of his employees, he said in the hearing. He wishes to express to the public, he said, my sincerest apologies to them for my failures as an owner of this business.”

This story was updated with additional comments from county officials provided a day after the story was published.

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