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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Report of ‘severely decomposed’ body leads to investigations of Bellingham funeral home

The Whatcom County Courthouse.  (Bellingham Herald)
By Denver Pratt Bellingham Herald

BELLINGHAM – The Washington state Department of Licensing and Whatcom County have started investigations into claims that bodies of the deceased were stored without refrigeration at a local funeral home that is providing the space for the county’s temporary morgue.

The licensing department and the county became aware of allegations that at least one body went unrefrigerated over the second weekend in May while at the county’s temporary morgue, resulting in severe decomposition. The county and licensing department are aware of allegations that there were additional unrefrigerated bodies during the same time.

As a result of the claims, both have launched inquiries into the matter.

“We recently heard some concerns regarding the storage of bodies at a funeral home where we have a facility use agreement for our Medical Examiner to conduct autopsies,” Jed Holmes, public affairs and strategy manager for the County Executive’s Office, said in a prepared statement sent to the Herald on Wednesday. “As a result, we’ve decided to open a fact-finding investigation into the matter. For the sake of everyone involved, we will not be able to speak about the situation until we complete this investigation and have a full picture of what transpired.”

Temporary morgue

Whatcom County entered into a lease agreement with Lengesot LLC, also known as Moles Farewell Tributes & Crematory, in July to provide space starting Aug. 1 at its Bayview Chapel location in Bellingham for the Whatcom County Medical Examiner’s Office to conduct autopsies, store bodies and perform other duties required by the examiner’s office.

The lease was required because the county’s morgue, on State Street in downtown Bellingham, is under construction as part of the Way Station project, a $12.6 million job that will provide homeless people with a range of health and social services to assist their transition to more permanent housing. The county morgue and Medical Examiner’s Office is in the same building.

The lease was slated to end in March but was extended by the Whatcom County Council at its May 21 evening meeting due to construction delays with the Way Station project. The lease will last through the end of the year, according to county documents.

As part of the lease agreement, Moles is expected to provide space in its garage at its Bayview Chapel location for a cooler that could store up to three bodies. If additional storage space is needed, Moles is expected to transport the bodies to its Green Acres Memorial location east of Ferndale.

DOL investigation

The state licensing department received a phone call May 16 from a funeral director alleging that a dead body they picked up from the temporary county morgue had not been refrigerated while in the care of the Whatcom County Medical Examiner’s Office, according to Christine Anthony, a funeral and cemetery inspector, investigator and trust examiner with the state licensing department.

The funeral director alleged when they received the body May 16, roughly six days after the person died, they found “the decedent severely decomposed and covered in flies,” according to Anthony.

The following day, the state licensing department became aware of the temporary morgue and lease between the county, medical examiner’s office and Moles. The state licensing department then began its investigation because a local funeral home was involved, Anthony told the Herald.

The licensing department’s Funeral and Cemetery Board licenses funeral directors, embalmers and cemetery operators within the state. It also investigates violations of state regulations related to the funeral and cemetery industries, according to the Washington state governor’s website.

The state licensing department’s Funeral and Cemetery Board’s investigation is looking into possible violations by Moles of state regulations that govern the refrigeration or embalming of human remains. The licensing department does not have regulatory authority over the medical examiner’s office, but does over Moles, Anthony said.

Anthony said two funeral homes in Whatcom County have complained to the licensing agency about the situation and she is aware that complaints from additional funeral homes have been made to Whatcom County officials. The funeral homes that complained to the licensing department said they’ve seen roughly six to seven bodies that were in the garage at Moles’ Bayview Chapel location that were not refrigerated, Anthony told the Herald.

Anthony said she has spoken with two local funeral homes, the Whatcom County Health and Human Services Department, and Moles as part of the investigation. She said she has not yet heard from the county’s medical examiner’s office.

“I have been assured during each conversation with the respondent funeral home and staff that all human remains are in refrigeration since the May 17 conversation with the business owner,” Anthony said. “I have not yet determined responsibility for this situation.”

The Herald has reached out to Moles for comment and more information. Questions sent to the Whatcom County Medical Examiner’s Office are being handled by the Whatcom County Executive’s Office. The Herald has also reached out to the county health department for more information.

County response

As of Thursday, the county has not determined who will be conducting its fact-finding inquiry, Holmes told the Herald, but added that the county is hoping to move quickly and fairly.

The county’s fact-finding investigation is centered around what transpired during the second weekend in May, when at least one body is alleged to have been stored without refrigeration.

Holmes said the county realized Wednesday it did not have enough information about the situation, which prompted the fact-finding inquiry.

Holmes said he hopes the investigation will clear the air with what’s happened and it will also enlighten the county in regardsto the medical examiner and morgue’s capacity and space needs.

He said the inquiry will show the county “if there were things that happened that didn’t follow protocols or need corrections, and that we would be able to look at that and do course corrections and plan better for the future.”

“We need to get to the bottom of all the facts,” Holmes said. “One of our partners is Moles, one of the partners is the ME’s office. We’re finding out more information about the situation so that it can inform future decisions.”

The Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office has not started a criminal investigation into the allegations, according to Deb Slater, a spokesperson with the sheriff’s office.

There have been no official reports filed with the sheriff’s office, so no investigation has been started at this time, Slater said. Investigations begin with either a deputy witnessing a crime or the sheriff’s office receiving reports, she said.

“As with any case, upon receipt of official reports of criminal activity within unincorporated Whatcom County, WCSO would conduct an initial response to determine if a more in-depth investigation is warranted. If the preliminary investigation reveals evidence of criminality or other concerns, WCSO would defer to an outside agency to take over the investigation to ensure impartiality and avoid any potential conflicts of interest,” Slater told The Herald in an email.

The Herald has reached out to the Bellingham Police Department to see if they’ve received any reports or have started an investigation.