Wichita funeral home investigation
Reusing caskets, overcharging customers and switching merchandise - a former funeral home director says she witnessed all of it. She accuses Watson Funeral Home in Wichita of unethical business practices. In 2009, she went to state officials with her concerns. After nothing was done, she came to us. The following is our six month investigation and why it’s spurred the state to take a second look into allegations against Watson Funeral Home.
"THAT'S NOT MY SIGNATURE"
Patty Newkirk laid her mother, Beverly Grieve, to rest two years ago. But planning the funeral started years before. Patty and Beverly went to Watson Funeral Home and selected the service, a casket, an outer burial container and extras like flowers and what would be inscribed on the headstone. After prepaying, Patty says she talked with owner Doug Watson about upgrading the casket.
"We did discuss the casket at length," said Patty.
So Patty paid an extra $500 for an upgraded sealed casket.
"I wanted a sealed casket for my mom," said Patty. "When he explained the difference, the fluids seeping in and everything, I just really wanted a sealed casket for her. That was really important to me."
When Beverly died, Patty was asked to pay an additional $1,185. Patty says she wrote the check and didn't ask what it was for.
"I wasn't asking questions that day," said Patty. "I was too distraught."
Four months later, a funeral home director who helped with Beverly's arrangements filed a complaint with the Kansas State Board of Mortuary Arts. In it, Laura Williams alleges owner Doug Watson overcharged for Beverly's service. Williams says she's the one who took Patty's check believing the family was paying to upgrade the casket and a few other things.
"He (Watson) told me at the time the family was upgrading the casket, the vault and the flowers," said Williams. "After I looked into it a bit later, I found the family had upgraded years before and paid for it years before."
Eyewitness News obtained the original funeral contract and the final one. All costs are the same except for what¿s listed under "cemetery expense." So we tracked down Merle McKee who runs the Mulvane Cemetery where Beverly was buried. He can't explain the charges.
"Those are not our charges," said McKee after looking over the paperwork.
That's not all. If you take a closer look at the final contract, you'll see something odd. Patty says the signature at the bottom is forged.
"I don't know whose signature this is," said Patty. "It's certainly not mine or anyone from my family. That really seems illegal to me to have put some other person's signature on a contract that's supposed to be a final contract."
An investigator with the Kansas State Board of Mortuary Arts did question owner Doug Watson. Watson blamed his former funeral director, Laura Williams, who filed the complaint. Watson told the state investigator that Beverly's "arrangements/services occurred while he was having his first surgery."
But Patty will tell you differently.
"I definitely arranged it with him - certainly the Friday before her burial," said Patty. "There's no way he was gone or at surgery at the time."
So why didn't the Kansas State Board of Mortuary Arts discover this in its investigation? We found out the investigator never contacted Patty or any of the other families in Laura William's complaint. The investigator tells us it's because he didn¿t find anything wrong so it was unnecessary to call them.
THE CREMATION AND THE CASKET CASE
In a second situation, Laura Williams claims Doug Watson sold a $4550 casket to be used in a funeral and cremation but then instructed employees to remove the body and reuse the casket - all to save money. The former general manager of Watson Funeral Home even backs up William's story and told the state investigator he "witnessed the deceased being removed from the casket and placed into a simple cardboard combustible container. The casket was then placed back on the showroom floor to be used again."
The state investigator asked owner Doug Watson about this situation and again, he blames his former funeral director Laura Williams, who filed the complaint. Watson told the state investigator "she (Williams) handled the case."
Once again, the state investigator never contacted this family to ask questions. So we did. The family, who requested we not identify them, says they dealt exclusively with Doug Watson the entire time. The family verified the casket was purchased to be used for the funeral and cremation. The family is Buddhist and as part of tradition, they rake through the cremated ashes of their loved one. They say at the time they thought it was odd because there were no remnants, like handles or other metal casket hardware left.
In a third situation, it's not clear whether the casket purchased was actually the casket used. Eyewitness News obtained copies of a third funeral arrangement listed in Laura William's complaint. The paperwork shows three different casket names. When the state investigator asked Watson about it, he gives a fourth name ¿ combining the names of two separate caskets and making up a fourth casket name which doesn¿t even exist. Laura Williams alleges Doug Watson would order cheaper, similar-looking caskets from what a family selected.
"He told me the family was in Kansas City and they wouldn't know the difference and it wasn't a big deal," said Williams.
Williams says Watson would bank on the fact most people don't know the differences between caskets while prices can vary depending on what the casket is made of, casket thickness and hardware.
The funeral business is like no other. When that difficult time comes to bury our loved one, we don't ask if the casket is the same one we picked out and paid for. We trust the arrangements we've made will be followed. Patty Newkirk says for her, that's more important than any amount of money.
"Such trust...such trust," said Patty.
Since our six month investigation, the State Board of Mortuary Arts has reopened all three cases involving Watson Funeral Home. State Investigator Mack Smith declined an on camera interview citing the ongoing investigation but did tell us he stands by his original decision not to contact the families involved in the complaint.
"Based on the information provided at the time, I chose not to talk to the families," said Smith.
Smith says he has to weigh whether there¿s enough evidence to make it worth approaching a grieving family about an allegation. He says after his initial investigation, he didn't think there was.
We pointed out how much of our information was only gained by talking with the families. Smith says if new information comes forward, any complaint case can be reopened. That's what's happening now.
Doug Watson also declined an on camera interview with us, citing the ongoing state investigation.
As for Laura Williams, she's pleased something is finally being done.
"That's all we have is our trust," said Williams. "If we don't have our integrity and our honor and our trust when we deal with families we don't have anything."
WHAT SHOULD YOU ASK?
If you have questions about the funeral planning process, the National Funeral Directors Association can help. Mr. Ashley Cozine is a member of the NFDA Spokesperson Team, Professional Development Committee and represents Kansas on the NFDA Policy Board. Cozine is also a funeral director at Broadway Mortuary in Wichita. He provides the following information.
What questions should you ask when planning a funeral?
Planning a funeral can be a very emotional and difficult experience, particularly when the death was sudden or unexpected. There are a number of details that will need to be gathered for vital statistics purposes (i.e., the death certificate) as well as for the service itself. The type of services a family may want or whether they wish to bury or cremate will need to be decided. Cost and payment methods are other important factors that need to be discussed. An experienced funeral director will address these issues when meeting with a family. You should never feel that a question is not important. It is the role of a funeral director to help guide and take care of the needs of the family they are serving. If you are ever uncertain or don¿t understand something, don't hesitate to ask.
How do you know you're getting what you paid for?
Making funeral arrangements ahead of time makes sense for many reasons. It gives you the opportunity to select the right funeral home; discuss your service options and to alleviate some of the difficult decisions a family has to make when a death occurs. Once plans have been made, all documents should be kept in a safe place. The funeral home should keep copies of all paperwork in a confidential file as well. Among the documents you should receive is a Statement of Funeral Goods and Services. This statement or contract will list everything you have paid for. You may also request a photo of the casket or other merchandise for your records as well. This may eliminate potential issues at a later time. Inform a family member or close friend about your arrangements and where the information may be found. If you ever have any questions or changes after making your arrangements, you should feel free to contact the funeral home in order to review or update your plans.
WATSON BEING SUED
Doug Watson and wife Cynthia Dantic-Watson are also being sued by the estate of former school teacher and real estate agent Nadine Brotemarkle. Wichita attorney Harry Najim filed the case and accuses the couple of befriending Brotemarkle, getting her to loan them $510,000 then failing to pay back the loans after her death.
"Watson and Dantic-Watson carefully orchestrated a plan to hoodwink Mrs. Brotemarkle, knowing that they did not and would not have the funds to repay the loans," said Najim in the court petition. Najim alleges the money was used to pay off funeral home debt. He's suing for the loan amount and interest which comes to $533,213. The case was filed March 29. Watson has 20 days to respond. You can read the court petition below.
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