New allegations slow Warren Funeral Chapel resolution

Monday, November 3, 2008 | 12:15 p.m. CST; updated 12:42 p.m. CST, Monday, November 3, 2008

COLUMBIA — Warren Funeral Chapel and the attorney general's office have been unable to resolve the lawsuit against the funeral home because new allegations continue to surface, an assistant attorney general told a Boone County judge Monday.

The new allegations primarily relate to "pre-need" arrangements handled by the Warrens, Assistant Attorney General Peter Lyskowski said. Some people who paid the Warrens before they or their loved ones died now want to know what happened to their money, he said.

New allegations could lead to new counts being added to the lawsuit filed July 25 by Attorney General Jay Nixon against the funeral home and its owners, Harold Warren Sr. and Harold Warren Jr.

The original suit accuses the Columbia funeral home of unsanitary conditions and improper storage of bodies, including that of a woman who died from hepatitis and was not embalmed or refrigerated for 10 months.

Lyskowski estimated there have been between 40 and 60 complaints against the funeral home. He said the attorney general's office has not ruled out criminal charges against the Warrens, though some of the allegations would fall under the jurisdiction of local prosecutors. The questions about pre-need arrangements in particular "have criminal and civil implications," he said.

Dan Viets, the Warrens' attorney, said the Warrens are cooperating with the attorney general's office, and they are complying with the court injunction. Warren Funeral Chapel has been closed since July 30 because of that injunction.

The Warrens are now looking to sell the funeral home, Viets said.

Lyskowski said the attorney general's office wants to make sure the Warrens don't open another funeral home under a different name.

"Our idea is not to allow Harold Warren Jr. and Harold Warren Sr. to operate as funeral directors and embalmers in the future," he said.

Viets told Boone County Circuit Judge Kevin Crane he hoped the two sides could reach an out-of-court agreement, avoiding a trial. But Lyskowski stressed that the attorney general's office wants to address all outstanding complaints.

"The most important thing for us is to help the families that have been hurt by the Warrens," Lyskowski said. The lawsuit seeks restitution payments for the families involved and civil penalties against the Warrens.

Crane set another status hearing for Jan. 26, 2009.

Patricia Johnson, who has filed a complaint with the attorney general against the Warrens, attended Monday's hearing and vowed to attend every court date on the case. She believes the Warrens lost or improperly disposed of her sister's body, and she said she was trying to get a gravesite exhumed to see if her sister is actually buried there.

"I hope that I get some closure," she said.

She said she wants to join a potential class-action suit against the Warrens filed by her aunt, Kathy Johnson. But first the suit has to be certified as a class action by Boone County Circuit Judge Gene Hamilton during a hearing set for Feb. 23, 2009.

The Warrens also face a lawsuit by Mildred Williams of Florissant, who accused the Warrens of losing or failing to turn over her brother's ashes and keeping her mother's body unrefrigerated for months in the funeral home's basement, even though she was supposed to be cremated.

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