COLUMBIA — Accusations against Warren Funeral Chapel have focused on unsanitary conditions, unembalmed bodies and lost remains. On Monday, new accusations surfaced that could lead to new counts added to the lawsuit filed against the funeral home by Attorney General Jay Nixon.
Assistant Attorney General Peter Lyskowski said his office was investigating allegations about pre-need arrangements handled by the funeral home. Some people who had prepaid the Warrens for funerals are wondering what happened to their money, he said.
The allegations emerged in court Monday as Lyskowski and the Warrens' attorney Dan Viets updated Boone County Circuit Judge Kevin Crane on the progress the two sides had made toward reaching an out-of-court settlement. At an Aug. 25 hearing, both sides expressed optimism that they could resolve the lawsuit before Monday’s hearing.
But things have changed in the intervening 10 weeks. New allegations have emerged, and the attorney general’s office wants to make sure any resolution addresses all of them, including the recent concerns about pre-need arrangements, Lyskowski said.
These new allegations could lead to amending the attorney general’s lawsuit to add new counts. The original lawsuit, filed July 25, accuses the Columbia funeral home and its owners, Harold Warren Sr. and Harold Warren Jr., 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, though he would not give further details about the complaints.
The number of pre-need arrangements jumped in Missouri during the 2008 fiscal year, as did complaints about pre-need arrangements, according to statistics from the Missouri Department of Insurance. During that time, almost 30,000 pre-need contracts were set up totaling roughly $115 million. There were also 149 reported complaints. An insurance department administrator said he couldn’t comment on any complaints related to Warren Funeral Chapel.
Viets 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 Crane he hoped both sides could reach an out-of-court agreement to avoid 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 filed a complaint with the attorney general against the Warrens, attended Monday’s hearing, vowing to attend every court date for the case. She said she believes the Warrens lost or improperly disposed of her sister’s body, and she said she was trying to get a grave site exhumed to see if her sister was actually buried there.
“I hope that I get some closure,” she said.
Johnson said she wants to join a potential class-action lawsuit against the Warrens filed by her aunt, Kathy Johnson. First, the lawsuit 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.