Rogue funeral director continues operation

Lack of license, lawsuits fail to deter Van Ness from approaching families of immigrants

By: - December 15, 2021 5:00 am
(Photo illustration by John Partipilo.)

(Photo illustration by John Partipilo.)

About three months ago, Guliana Miranda and her husband learned they were the only family members in the U.S. who could oversee the funeral proceedings of a recently departed family member and heard about a Spanish-speaking funeral director, Reid Van Ness, who could help them. 

They knew Dolores Jimenez Garcia, a relative of her husband, had been having problems for a long time but were still shocked to learn he had committed suicide at work. Now they were in a hurry to send his body to Mexico for his grieving mother and were told by Van Ness that the process would take two weeks.

Two months passed, and Van Ness became increasingly agitated when questioned about the delay. 

“He became irritated. He said to us, ‘I already told you that the process is very long and that right now the body can’t be delivered because there are no flights, and the consulate is not giving us permission to deliver the body,’” said Miranda. 

Miranda gave Van Ness an ultimatum to tell them what was going to happen or she would ask someone else to deliver the body. 

“It was too much, my husband had another acquaintance that recently passed and he’s already in Mexico. He died last week and he was already in Mexico,” she said.

“[Garcia’s] mother is desperate and sick,” she added.

Finally, Garcia’s remains were delivered to Mexico, although under one condition. Van Ness had asked them not to open the coffin but wouldn’t say why. But Garcia’s mother wanted to make sure she was burying her son, and when they opened the coffin, they found Garcia’s body in advanced decomposition.

“His family had to see him like that,” said Miranda. 

Nearly 10 months after the Lookout started reporting on Van Ness, the ex-funeral director allegedly continues to offer his services to the immigrant community. Van Ness lost his license after a 2020 state investigation found at least a dozen decomposing immigrant bodies,

Months after unlicensed funeral director Reid Van Ness promised to ship Dolores Jimenez Garcia’s body to his family in Mexico, he finally sent the man’s remains home. On arrival, Garcia’s family found the body had been sent in an advanced state of decomposition.

An active investigation by the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance  has not deterred him, despite numerous complaints. 

On Dec. 6, the department sent out another advisory to Tennessee funeral professionals and residents that Van Ness is allegedly approaching Spanish-speaking residents in Rutherford County who have recently lost a loved one. 

The department had previously sent out warnings to all Tennessee funeral businesses and the Mexican and Guatemalan consulates, but their investigation has no deadline. 

One of the problems, according to spokesperson Kevin Walters, is that the department does not have the ability to prosecute criminal charges against an individual. Their jurisdiction falls under administrative powers to regulate professional licenses, and Van Ness has surrendered his licenses to practice. 

“We continue to coordinate with law enforcement agencies regarding his alleged activities. We cannot speculate about any possible outcomes of any potential criminal investigation,” said Walter. 

And despite warnings to funeral businesses across the state, Van Ness continues to find ways to avoid getting caught. 

According to the advisory, Van Ness’s has recently been working with Todd County Funeral Home in Elkton, Kentucky, whose services Van Ness used to continue catering to immigrant residents in Middle Tennessee.

Van Ness does not have a funeral director or embalming license in Kentucky, according to John Blevins, attorney for the Kentucky Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors. 

After families sought out Van Ness for funeral services,  he offered to hold ceremonies at a small town church in Madison, Fatherland Baptist Church. The Rev. Porter Jennings has known Van Ness for decades and allowed Van Ness to use the church for families in need.

“But that’s all, there’s no embalming, there’s no contracts, they don’t have to pay us. None of that stuff. We’re just a small church,” said Jennings. 

(Photo: John Partipilo)
(Photo: John Partipilo)

Following Garcia’s funeral at the church, Van Ness took the body to Kentucky without the family’s knowledge.  

After asking for help from friends, Miranda was informed that Garcia’s body was in Kentucky and that the funeral director had yet to receive the $7,000 paid to Van Ness, which caused delays in shipping the body to Mexico.

Shane Hessey of Todd County Funeral Home said he had little knowledge of the allegations made against Van Ness but offered no other comment.

Criminal or Civil: How Van Ness Avoids Charges

Despites numerous reports of Van Ness’s alleged abuse of deceased immigrants, he continues to find families willing to pay him thousands to send their loved ones to their countries of origin. 

In Miranda’s case, she had heard from her sister that Van Ness had helped numerous people in the immigrant community for years, and English-speaking news made few headlines among Spanish speakers. 

In Madison, Van Ness was known among the Fatherland Baptist community as the man who could procure low-cost funeral services for families in desperate need. Van Ness had helped Jennings bury his wife after she died from breast cancer and doubted he was the man painted by his accusers. 

“If Reid has done things, he’ll pay for it, but I hope that he has not done anything that will totally put him where he can’t help the people who need him the most,” he said.

And lawsuits continue to pile up against Van Ness and the funeral homes he associated with. As of Nov. 22, there are now six families who are a part of the federal lawsuit against Van Ness.

All six families contracted Van Ness to send their deceased loved one to their country of origin and were then misled about the body’s whereabouts for months. Some families received the deceased’s remains after months. Other families waited a year to find the bodies, and others have relatives that are still missing. At least two were children.

The latest lawsuit was filed on behalf of Emigdio Dominguez Lechuga, who died on Jan. 8, 2020 of metastatic bladder cancer. He had been employed at Taylor Farms in Smyrna for 22 years. 

“[Family members] and Mr. Lechuga spoke almost every day by telephone, and the loss of their loved one was nothing short of devastating,” according to the lawsuit. 

After contracting Van Ness, the family waited five months before growing desperate and seeking assistance from Mexican authorities and the Mexican consulate.  

Lechuga’s remains were eventually laid to rest in Mexico. 

Van Ness offered no comment on the lawsuits beyond a text stating he has “no knowledge of such frivolous things.”

Although many families have filed complaints with the department of commerce and insurance and joined the lawsuit, there are currently no criminal complaints filed against Van Ness in Davidson County or Rutherford County, where the majority of the victims live. 

Families of those who have contracted with Van Ness find accountability hard to come by: Van Ness has crossed state lines, evading police jurisdictions. State law protects churches and religious institutions and Van Ness has been operating in part through a Madison church. Lawsuits by families have not deterred the former funeral director, who terms the suits ‘frivolous.’

But according to Officer Luis Lopez of the Metro Nashville Police Department, these cases are difficult to investigate because the families knowingly contracted Van Ness for a service, which he failed to do.

“If they have an agreement of some sort and he breaks that agreement, they can then report it,” said Lopez, although he adds the families may have to file a civil case instead. 

Where the crime begins is difficult to decipher. Laws on how dead bodies can be handled differ from state to state. In Tennessee, the state cannot interfere with a religious institution’s preparation of a body for burial, as long as a licensed funeral director signs off on the death certificate. 

Van Ness’s association with Hessey, a licensed funeral director, allowed him to continue offering funeral services.

And local police departments can only investigate crimes if they happened within the county. If the crime happened in another county, even if the victim is in Davidson County, the MNPD cannot prosecute the criminal. 

Because Van Ness crossed state lines, he is also avoiding local police departments. 

A possible crime across state lines would fall under the jurisdiction of state departments, but according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, officials would need the request of the district attorney general to pursue criminal activity. 

The Tennessee Attorney General’s Office has been made aware of Van Ness’s alleged activities by the Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers, but “ their investigation would need to come to a conclusion before we could comment on any next steps,” said Samantha Fisher, spokesperson for Attorney General Herbert Slatery. 

Families Fear for their Safety

Since her initial interaction with Van Ness, Miranda has received threatening messages from Van Ness.

“I forgive you for the bad treatment and lies that you have made against me, but the ultimate judge is god,” wrote Van Ness in a text message. 

Miranda now worries she will have to move because Van Ness knows where she lives.

She is now considering joining the federal lawsuit against Van Ness in an effort to protect herself.

 

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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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