NEW ORLEANS -- The Orleans Parish Coroner said Wednesday that a system failure on every level led to the accidental cremation of a murder victim last week. But the funeral home that wrongly sent the body for cremation admits nothing.
“Just to know that what happened to my son when I wanted a funeral, that's just,” sighed Michelle Bias Sullivation about the accidental cremation of her son Ralph Bias last week.
The 20-year-old was shot to death while driving on I-10.
Michelle and her husband, Ralph Sullivan, were hoping to have an open-casket funeral for their son, Ralph, on Saturday.
“I am not going to deny responsibility of this. It was a horrible error,” said Orleans Parish Coroner Frank Minyard.
He said the mix up started when the tags on two body bags crossed.
“We have to put [the bodies one on top of the other, we have so many,” Minyard said.
Bodies are still being stored in three refrigerator trucks behind the old funeral home that became the New Orleans Forensic Center ‘temporary’ location after Hurricane Katrina.
Minyard admits one of his employees grabbed the wrong body and didn't open up the bag to check to make sure he had the correct one.
“That was an act so simple that any third grader could do,” he said.
The Coroner’s Office gave Ralph Bias' body to Heritage Funeral Home, a mortuary that was expecting the body of an elderly white man. Apparently, Heritage also didn't check the body because Bias was sent straight to the crematorium.
“We were under the assumption that we were brought the correct remains,” said Regina Wedig, attorney for Heritage Funeral Home Director Arthur Hickerson.
Hickerson and his attorney wouldn't offer any explanation about what happened to Bias' body. In fact, Wedig wouldn't admit any wrongdoing in the case.
“There are procedures in place and that's what we're trying to determine. What procedures were followed,” she said.
“I was dissatisfied with the answers. Because the law is set up that the funeral home is supposed to ensure that they have the right body before they send it to cremation,” said Allain Hardin, attorney for the Sullivan family.
Minyard said his facility is inadequate to handle the volume of bodies they house, an average of 80 at any one time. He had hoped to build a new forensic center in recent years.
“I was jerked around by the last administration. They led me to believe that they were gonna dance with me and give me a kiss and all I got was a kick,” Minyard said.
A spokesman for the current mayor, Mitch Landrieu, said a new, combined facility for the Coroner and EMS is part of the mayor's 100 projects funded for 2011.
Press Secretary Ryan Berni said $5.9 million is budgeted for the building, but didn't give a timeline on when construction is expected to start.
In the meantime, Bias' family and their attorney said protocols are in place to keep what happened to Ralph from happening again, but only if they're followed.
Ralph Bias' family is now holding a memorial service for him at a local church instead of a funeral. His remains will not get to be buried near other family members who've passed. The urn holding his ashes will be housed in a mausoleum.