Woman claims funeral home billed insurance company for funeral that didn't happen

Tranquility Funeral Homes and Crematorium receives many complaints in past years

By Christina Vazquez - Reporter

MIAMI - "He was funny. He had a quirky sense of humor. He loved his animals. That's why we have so many. He loved talking on the air. This isn't right to take advantage of people in grief," Lenora Hanchett said about her late partner Douglas DeVos.

Local 10 News investigative reporter Christina Vazquez looked into a South Florida company that Hanchett claims defrauded her by billing an insurance company for a funeral that never happened.

Hanchett said Tranquility Funeral Homes and Crematorium in Miami scammed her out of half of her partner's life insurance money. Documents show she was the beneficiary.

On paper, the funeral for Douglas Craig DeVos, better known as WEXY Radio personality Jim Michaels, was extravagant.

Tranquility Funeral Homes and Crematorium billed $51,686 in funeral goods and services in July of 2014. According to the company there were limos, flowers, police escorts, prayer cards, a horse and carriage.

Tranquility also billed for a casket and embalming for public viewing even though Hanchett, the beneficiary of DeVos' life insurance, and friends told Local 10 News there was no funeral because DeVos was cremated.

Some of the charges include:

$14,021 for a Mausoleum

$8,210 for a casket

$3, 195 for a horse and carriage

$2,385 for three 22 passenger limo's

$1,400 for eight police escorts

$795 for embalming for public viewing

$480 Newspaper Notice.  

Local 10 News checked with every major newspaper and there was no obituary on file for DeVos.

"He said he did not want a funeral," said WEXY 1520AM General Manager Trish Phillips. "He made it very clear, 'Please Trish, honor my wishes. I just want to be cremated and the ashes to be split between you and my roommate Lenora.'"

Hanchett and the radio station both showed Local 10 News their half of DeVos' ashes.

Hanchett also produced a receipt provided by Tranquility Funeral Homes and Crematorium showing she paid by check for a cremation. The receipt includes the words, "Direct Cremation NO Viewing."

"The limousine, the service utility vehicle, all these graveside services, what grave?  There's no grave," said Hanchett. "There's no mausoleum. There's no horse drawn carriage -- that's what really got me."

"First I'm just in awe, in shock, where it said he was embalmed. As you could see these are his ashes here. No memorial or funeral service," said Phillips, who worked with DeVos from 1994 to 2014. "He wanted to go in peace. Oh gosh, to see all these things that have never taken place is sad to see and very, very hurtful… it's just unbelievable."

THE ASSIGNMENT:

The company even misspelled the word crematorium in its own letterhead on the "Statement of Funeral Goods and Services Selected" -- instead it reads "Crematroium."

Hanchett said the life insurance money she claims she was defrauded out of would help her keep up with mortgage payments following DeVos' death.

"He wanted me to have the house so I could take care of the animals," said Hanchett of DeVos' wishes for the Dachshunds the couple adore. "I hope he's prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law because this isn't right to take advantage of people in grief."

Local 10 News reached out to the insurance company who paid Tranquility for the funeral Hanchett and DeVos' co-workers at WEXY claim never happened.

Athene spokeswoman Amanda Steward told Local 10 News via e-mail, "We have an assignment form that Lenora signed and which was notarized from the funeral home requesting payment to them. This is standard practice, so after reviewing the statement of services, the funeral home was paid."

"I don't think it's my signature," said Hanchett, "Because a notary was not here. And my signature wasn't signed in front of a notary."

State records show at the time that agreement was signed, Tranquility was "out of business…the license is cancelled-invalid."

THE NOTARY:

Deandre Arnold is the person who notarized the "Irrevocable Assignment" in the sum of $50,000, money that Lenora states was supposed to be paid to her as DeVos' beneficiary, but was instead paid to Tranquility.

According to the Office of Open Government of the Executive Office of the Governor, Arnold's notary is currently valid and there are no complaints filed on that notary with their office.

Local 10 News also submitted a Freedom of Information request for a copy of Arnold's Notary Public Commission Application with the Florida Department of State.

Rose Marie Harper signed the "Affidavit of Character." Her name caught the eye of Vazquez as she is referenced in an inter-office communication document related to a 2014 case with the Florida Department of Financial Services.

In Ariane M. Smith vs. Tranquility Funeral Homes and Crematorium, financial examiner/analyst II Marc Adel tells Area financial manager Thurman Lowe that "Tranquility has been out of business since February of 2014. The license is cancelled-invalid. The new location in Hollywood was a fraud and no longer in operation. Raymond Mackey was the person behind this fraud. On July 22, 2014, Dahlia Norman went to Tranquility and made At-Need arrangements with Rose Marie Harper. She is an unlicensed individual and known accomplice to Raymond Mackey who is also unlicensed." It goes on to say, "Tranquility is guilty of unlicensed activity (497.380) and fraud (497.152(b)."

State records show Deandre Arnold and Rose Marie Harper were listed under a now inactive filing for a company called Florida Family Funeral Home, Inc. In the Sept. 20, 2011, filing, Harper was listed as the registered agent and Arnold as president.

Arnold also notarized a document on behalf of Florida Family Funeral Home which was the subject of a consumer complaint to state regulators in 2012. In that case, Sherri Rudisel said she paid "Mr. Ray" $300 for a copy of a death certificate and autopsy report for a loved one. Rudisel tells Local 10 News the documents were never delivered and the money never refunded.

THE WAREHOUSE BAY: 

VIDEO WEB EXTRA: Vazquez visits spot where funeral allegedly took place

Local 10 News wanted to speak with Rick Chance, the man whose name is listed on the DeVos assignment form, and see the place where this pricy funeral would have taken place.

What we found is an empty warehouse bay in Opa-locka.

The property manager tells Local 10 News the lease was signed by Joseph McCray Brown and that Tranquility never even paid first month's rent.

Nearby business owner, Jose Baluja, tells Local 10 News the people who worked there left in a hurry.

"So many people asking for the relative's ashes. Police came to my place asking if I know the people," he said.

Local 10 News checked-in with two crematoriums in the area to see if they knew the whereabouts of Tranquility's owners. Workers at both locations told Local 10 News Tranquility owed them money.

Local 10 News also visited the North Miami address listed on Hanchett's receipt for cremation.  A new business was in the storefront that matched the address on her receipt. People who live in the area told Local 10 News Tranquility was in operation there for a short period of time.

NOWHERE TO BE FOUND:

The name "Bernard Roberson" is included on that receipt.  According to state regulators, Roberson had been the funeral director in charge for Tranquility Funeral Homes and Crematorium Inc. and had a funeral director and embalmer license which expired Aug. 31, 2015. Tranquility Funeral Homes and Crematorium was licensed until Nov. 30, 2014.

According to an obituary published in the Miami Herald, on Aug. 14, 2015 Roberson died of a sudden illness on Aug. 11, 2014.  Broward County court records show a petition filed for Administration in the Estate of Bernard C. Roberson Sept. 30, 2014.

Local 10 News spent days running on publicly listed addresses for Roberson, McCray Brown, Arnold and Harper. In some cases there were new residents, in others no one was home at the time, and in other cases the address was fictitious. Phone numbers have been since disconnected. An e-mail has yet to be returned.  Local 10 News is still working on contacting Mackey.

DEVELOPING STORY:

Local 10 News will be sharing the information we have gathered with state regulators.

Vazquez also shared Hanchett's case with the Miami-Dade Economic Crimes Bureau who have since opened an investigation into the fraud allegation.

She will continue to reach out to Athene.

WEB LINK: How to file a complaint with Florida's Chief Financial Officers: Division of Funeral, Cementery & Consumer Services.

PATTERN OF COMPLAINTS:

Complaints into Jeff Atwater's Florida Division of Funeral, Cemetery & Consumer Services have been filed by businesses, individuals, a church, even the Palm Beach County Medical Examiner.

In 2014, Ariane Smith of Oakland, California, told investigators that her mother, who lives in Fort Lauderdale, contacted Tranquility to arrange for the cremation and shipment of her uncle's remains to Minnesota.

Her uncle resided in Mesa, Arizona, at the time of his death. She stated that as part of the contract "Tranquility was to pay the crematorium in Arizona and also provide us with eight death certificates." She said that the crematorium was not paid, "they received two checks, both of which bounced," and they didn't receive the death certificates.

"The lack of the death certificates means I cannot begin the work of settling my uncle's estate and the crematorium in Arizona, another small business, remains unpaid for their work," she said.

The Smith case was referred to the Fraud Division.

Ariane M. Smith v Tranquility FH & Crematorium Inc

Status:      Closed   11-7-2014

After reviewing the records the records it was determined by investigator that there was evidence of violations of Chapter 497. Tranquility was found guilty of unlicensed activity (497.380) – matter referred for criminal violation.

Smith tells Local 10 News in her opinion her complaint was not resolved. She said an investigator told her the company has gone out of business and so nothing could be done.

In 2013, Palm Beach Medical Examiner Michael Bell said Tranquility Funeral Homes failed to pay for a cremation.

ATN-20681

No payment to Medical Examiner for services rendered

Resolved: Amount paid

Also in 2013, K. Scott Whitehead of Gadsden County said Tranquility was "passing bad checks on a closed account." Whitehead said his firm performed a service, "(Removal and Refrigeration) for this funeral home, total bill was $595.00.00. I was given a BAD CHECK. Handed to me in person. This is was unethical of a funeral director, as per FLORIDA LAW."

ATN-19447

Bad check

Resolved: Complainant satisfied: check made good

In that same year the First Congregational Church of Tallahassee complained Tranquility wrote a "bad check" for a service held in their sanctuary.

Treasurer W. Fred Gray said in his complaint letter he dealt with a "Mr. Hallman" at Tranquility.

At one time a "Hallman, Richard VESQ" was listed in state records as the company's registered agent.

Local 10 News checked with the Florida Bar and there is no licensed attorney by the name of Richard Hallman. The publicly listed address for Hallman was fictitious.

ATN-20452

Bad check to industry vendor (church)

Resolved: No payment. Matter referred to the SAO due to criminal violation

Local 10 News submitted an inquiry in the State Attorney's Office to investigate if they opened a case after receiving the case referral. SAO Spokeswoman Lissette Valdes-Valle tells Local 10 News via e-mail that they "haven't received the case."

In 2012, Claudia Matos de Borba said her family paid $295 for a memorial necklace they claim was never delivered. 

ATN-19448

Failed to give merchandise which had been paid for

Resolved: Refund after complainant refused late merchandise

Again, despite exhaustive attempts in person, by phone and e-mail Local 10 News has been unable to locate Tranquility's owners or workers.

If you have any information call Miami-Dade County Police Department's Economic Crimes Bureau at  305-994-1000.

Follow Christina  Vazquez on Twitter @CallChristinaTV

Follow Local 10 News on Twitter @WPLGLocal10

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