Missouri funeral home inquiry widens

COLUMBIA | The probe of a central Missouri funeral company accused of mishandling bodies continues to widen, with a state prosecutor saying as many as 60 families have viable complaints against the Warren Funeral Chapel.

The Missouri attorney general's office sued the family owned business in late July after state inspectors reportedly found a decaying woman's body stored in an electrical room for 10 months without being embalmed or refrigerated. Inspectors also found a garbage bag filled with organs in the funeral home's basement.

Seven more decaying bodies were found a week later, and several families have said that cremated ashes they received were not the remains of their loved ones or that bodies were embalmed rather than cremated, as required by contract.

On Monday, Boone County Circuit Judge Kevin Crane extended a court order keeping the business closed while the state continues to seek a legal settlement with the company's owners. Another hearing is scheduled for January.

"The most important thing for us is to help the families who could have been harmed by the Warrens," said Assistant Attorney General Peter Lyskowski.

The state is seeking financial restitution for wronged clients as well as civil penalties against the funeral chapel, which is owned by Harold Warren Sr. and his son and namesake. Lyskowski said that 40 to 60 families have come forward with valid complaints against the business.

Patricia Johnson, a Columbia resident whose sister, Mable Mercer-Shelley, was buried at a local cemetery in November 2007, attended the brief court hearing. She now wonders if Mercer-Shelley, who died at 40, really is buried in that Rockbridge Cemetery grave.

"I want closure," she said. "I want them to exhume my sister's body to see if it's really her there."

Several former Warren clients, including Johnson's aunt, have filed lawsuits against the business, which operates funeral homes in Columbia and Fulton.

Attorney Dan Viets said the Warren family, which has been beset by financial problems, is attempting to sell the business.

"There are several interested people. But not all interested parties have the money," he said.

Court records indicate the Warrens have debt to Regions Bank totaling nearly $400,000 and are making payments under a Chapter 11 bankruptcy plan. Also, the younger Warren was jailed last month on charges of failing to pay child support.

The senior Warren was Columbia's first black City Council member when he served more than three decades ago. The state investigation has created a fissure in the city's black community, with the Warrens receiving support from the state and local chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and outrage from many of the business' longtime customers.