Lawsuits pile up against former funeral director

Four funeral homes accused of abetting Reid Van Ness are also named in federal lawsuits

By: and - November 3, 2021 5:05 am
(Photo illustration by John Partipilo.)

(Photo illustration by John Partipilo.)

Lawsuits continue to pile up against four funeral homes and an ex-funeral director accused of failing to send the remains of deceased immigrants back to their families overseas for burial.

On Monday, the family of Ramon Lara Castillo — a 63-year-old Nashville house painter who succumbed to liver cancer in October 2020 — filed a federal lawsuit against former funeral director Reid Van Ness and the operators of a funeral home in Lewisburg, Tenn. 

Roommates and friends of Castillo paid Van Ness $1,800 to ship the body home to his family in Mexico for burial, but the body never arrived. It remains missing until today, the lawsuit alleges.

Lara Castillos featured
Ramon Lara Castillo. (Photo: submitted)

It is the fourth lawsuit involving five immigrant families filed against Van Ness by attorneys Andrew Lockert and John Morris since December 2020. The lawsuits also name four separate funeral homes where Van Ness let bodies lie for up to 11 months, leading to various states of decomposition.  They claim Van Ness and the funeral homes he operated in displayed a “shockingly callous indifference” to families of deceased loved ones “because of their race and national origin.”

The lawsuit by Castillo’s sister and daughter “seeks redress for egregious abuses of basic human dignity and respect for the dead and their grieving family members.”

“The body and/or cremains have still not been located or delivered months and months after the passing of the family’s loved one,” the lawsuit said. The family is seeking $5 million in damages.

Reached Tuesday, Van Ness declined to comment.

An ongoing series of stories by the Tennessee Lookout found that Van Ness made promises to immigrant families to deliver bodies of loved ones home to Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras for burial but failed to deliver them. Van Ness was among a small number of funeral directors in Tennessee who spoke Spanish and had experience navigating the rules for shipping remains overseas.

Van Ness surrendered his license to practice as a funeral director and embalmer in March 2020 — seven months before he was hired to care for Castillo’s body. 

On Tuesday, a spokesman for the Tennessee Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers said the investigation into Van Ness remains ongoing. 

“The matter remains under investigation in cooperation with other government agencies,” spokesman Kevin Walter said. “The Department remains active in seeking a resolution against this unlicensed actor.”

In March Tennessee officials warned the state’s funeral businesses against doing business with Van Ness, and in May state officials cautioned the Mexican and Guatemalan consulates in Atlanta against working with Van Ness.

Initially, two lawsuits were filed against Van Ness and two funeral homes–Saddler Funeral Home & Crematory in Lebanon and Nelson & Sons Funeral Home in Murfreesboro– after a state investigation found at least 10 different bodies had been left to rot in coolers between the funeral homes for periods between two to 11 months. They included the body of two children: an 18-month-old infant who died after suffering a seizure and a 17-year-old victim of suicide. 

In December, lawyers representing the family of Freddy Aroldo Cristostomo Hernandez, a Robertson County man murdered in October 2019, filed complaints with the state licensing officials and filed a lawsuit against Van Ness and the two funeral homes, seeking compensation for the six months it took to ship Hernandez’ remains to Guatemala. 

In one instance, former funeral director Reid Van Ness led a friend of Julio Mejia Alonzo to view the Alonzo’s remains, which at this point were in an advanced stage of decomposition. Van Ness said that it would now be impossible to cremate or ship Alonzo’s body to Guatemala and that the only option now was to bury the body in the U.S., according to the lawsuit.

A second lawsuit was filed in July on behalf of Filemon Dominguez Diaz whose body was not returned to Mexico until nearly nine months after his death, when a state investigator intervened.

More lawsuits followed as more immigrant families who paid for Van Ness’s services were searching for their loved one’s missing remains. 

Monday’s suit is among the two newest lawsuits filed in the past two months. The lawsuits alleged that at least one funeral home knowingly aided Van Ness, who despite having surrendered his funeral director and embalming licenses in March 2020, continued to conduct funeral services.

Ramon Lara Castillo passed away on Oct. 23, 2020 at a Nashville hospital. With no family living nearby, friends made accommodations to have his body shipped to his sister living in Mexico.  After taking up a collection for $1,800, Hugo Fentanes Gonzalez paid Van Ness to cremate and ship Castillo’s remains to his sister, Diana Isabel Lara Castillo, in Mexico. 

Months went by and as Castillo’s sister grew increasingly frantic, Gonzalez’s attempts to contact Van Ness went unanswered, a February investigation by the Lookout found.

“The family says they never received the cremains, and to date we have not had any success in attempting to locate said cremains,” Lockert said Tuesday. “We are still hoping to locate the (remains) for the family, and hope to provide some measure of closure if possible.”

 At the time of Castillo’s death, Van Ness was no longer a practicing funeral director or embalmer. Castillo’s death certificate was instead signed by Gloria Anderson Quarles, who owned the Anderson Funeral Home in Lewisburg. 

In March 2021, the Tennessee Board of Funeral Directors received a complaint against the Anderson Funeral Home, alleging Quarles was aiding and abetting Van Ness, who continued to work as an unlicensed funeral director. A subsequent state investigation found that the establishment had worked with Van Ness on four other cases between November 2020 and December 2020. 

Quarles would later pay a civil fine of $2,500 and voluntarily enter a consent order to avoid being formally charged by the state, but is named in the lawsuit brought by the Castillo family. 

In a letter written to attorneys for the Castillo family, Quarles and her son, Arnold Emmitt Quarles, said they were asked to pick up a body for embalming and a subsequent cremation. 

After Castillo’s funeral service and cremation, Emmitt Quarles delivered the remains to Van Ness for shipment to his family in Mexico, but several months later, Castillo’s remains had yet to reach his sister in Mexico. 

Quarles then called Van Ness and recorded the conversation in which Van Ness claimed to have shipped the body the night before. The Mexican Consulate of Atlanta has no record of any remains being shipped to their facilities, and Quarles has not seen nor heard from Van Ness since, the letter said. The Quarles’ claim Van Ness owes Anderson Funeral Home more than $5,000.

This pattern was repeated time and time again, according to the lawsuit. 

On Oct. 08, 2021, lawyers filed a lawsuit on behalf of the family of Julio Mejia Alonzo, who died on July 20, 2019 at age 32 for reasons unknown. Lawyers represented Cruz Mendoza Ralios, who is the legal guardian of Alonzo’s 12-year-old daughter. 

At the time of Alonzo’s death, Ralios contacted Van Ness and paid $2,800 to have his body shipped to Guatemala. 

Alonzo’s body was then taken to Saddler Funeral Home in summer of 2019 before being moved to Gardner Memorial Chapel, which is listed as the responsible funeral home on Alonzo’s death certificate. 

Saddler Funeral Home in Lebanon, where Reid Van Ness stored bodies for months at a time. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Saddler Funeral Home in Lebanon, where Reid Van Ness stored bodies for months at a time. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Seven months passed and Ralios made several attempts to contact Van Ness before he finally answered. Van Ness then led Ralios to view the remains, which at this point were in an advanced stage of decomposition. Van Ness told Ralios that it would now be impossible to cremate or ship Alonzo’s body to Guatemala and that their only option now was to bury the body in the U.S., according to the lawsuit.

Family members were disheartened to learn there were no means of sending Alonzo’s body to his family in Guatemala, despite having already paid thousands, the lawsuit said. By September 2020, Van Ness had stopped responding altogether. 

After contacting a lawyer, Alonzo’s body was finally found on May 13, 2021, nearly two years after his death. He had been buried at Hills of Cavalry Cemetery in Nashville, which is associated with the Gardner Memorial Chapel.

Gardner’s funeral director claimed to have notified the family of his final resting place, but lawyers said they found no proof of this. Alonzo’s family only discovered the site of the burial after contacting lawyers and filing a formal complaint with the state board. The lawsuit alleges that Gardner was aware of Van Ness’s dealings and working relationship with the community.

This was not a unique situation, according to the lawsuit. The body of Bryan Ayala, 17-years-old at the time of death, had been “left to sit” at the Saddler Funeral Home for 10 months. His body was eventually cremated and his family joined the initial lawsuit.

Saddler Funeral Home was fined $15,000 for their unprofessional conduct in regards to Alonzo’s body, but lawyers representing the five families in four lawsuits are seeking $3 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages. 

Families were specifically targeted for being immigrants, the lawsuit claims. It accused the defendants of holding bodies as hostages until debts were paid or until they received more money. 

 

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Dulce Torres Guzman
Dulce Torres Guzman

Dulce has written for the Nashville Scene and Crucero News. A graduate of Middle Tennessee State University, she received the John Seigenthaler Award for Outstanding Graduate in Print Journalism in 2016. Torres Guzman is a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. She enjoys the outdoors and is passionate about preserving the environment and environmental issues.

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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee. She is a graduate of Columbia University in New York and the University of California at Berkeley School of Journalism. Wadhwani lives in Nashville with her partner and two children.

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