State of Michigan long-aware of horrific complaints at Flint funeral home

Probe was ongoing as complaints were coming in

(WXYZ) - A garage full of decomposing bodies, stained casket pillows, and loved ones mixed up at funerals.  These are the horror stories that emerged after the state shut down Swanson Funeral Home in Flint last month.

Many families have been demanding answers, so the 7 Investigators wanted to take a deeper look at what happened, and we discovered complaints about this funeral home that go back several years.

Related: See how State of Michigan investigated 'deplorable' Flint funeral home

“We deserve to know what happened. Even if it's awful, tell us and we'll accept it.  That way we can rest,” said Patricia Williams. 

Williams does not believe the ashes she received from Swanson Funeral Home in Flint were from her mother.

“It was a hard illness.  You stand by your loved one even in death, you want to make sure that things are done right and we feel like we failed her,” Williams told 7 Investigator Heather Catallo.

After a long battle with kidney and bone cancer, 73-year-old Myrna Duffer passed away on January 7, 2012.  Williams says her mother’s hospice caregivers recommended Swanson’s because they promised a quick turn-around for cremation. 

But Williams says when she started calling the funeral home nearly a week after her mom’s death, she couldn’t get a straight answer about whether the body had already been sent to Tri-County Cremation Services in Ypsilanti or not.

“She was not there, they couldn't find her at the funeral home,” said Williams.

Williams says the crematorium didn’t know either.   After days of waiting for answers, Williams and her dad, retired Detroit Police Officer Robert Duffer, went to Swanson’s in-person.  They were hoping to talk to the owner, O’Neil Swanson II.  

They wanted to know: Where was Myrna?

“They shuffled us in a back room so that we wouldn't make too much noise,” said Duffer.

“After an hour-and-a half in the backroom, and the door was closed in the backroom-- we started pounding on the door saying, 'Hey let us out of here, something's not right,’” said Williams.  “You could smell the stench of the bodies.  There were white pillows laying around with body fluid on them, the carpet was all ripped up, there were cockroaches climbing up and down the wall, and at that point, we knew we made a horrible mistake.”

Seventeen days after Myrna’s death, the family finally received some ashes from Swanson’s. 

The ashes were in a white unmarked paper bag, and had no identification on them.  

“Inside the bag was a plastic bag with ashes with a bread tie.  And that's when my dad really had a fit.  We knew then we didn't have mom anymore,” said Williams.

Patricia and Robert say they called the police, the Governor, the Genesee County Prosecutor’s Office, and Michigan’s Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA).

“Do you think the state should have done more? asked Catallo.

“The state should have closed them down… when we were calling, because now look what everybody has had to go through.  There are so many unanswered questions.  It's not only us, it's not only our family, it's not only my mom.  Who knows who these people buried, who knows who they put in the crematory,” said Williams.

LARA did not take regulatory action on the Duffer family’s complaint. But in 2012, several other complaints started coming in to LARA’s Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or MIOSHA.  The complaints were about everything from “people working on bodies with no protective gear” to “improper storage facilities for human remains.”

MIOSHA inspected Swanson’s 6 times since June of 2012.  They issued 16 citations and fined them $38,100.

At the same time that MIOSHA was investigating, other inspectors from LARA were looking into allegations that Swanson’s was forging doctors’ signatures on death certificates.  O’Neil Swanson II and the funeral home were fined $10,000 for that.

But Swanson’s was allowed to stay open, even after getting a complaint in September 2015 that alleged O’Neil Swanson II “runs a scam on people” by holding bodies at the “funeral home garage until they rot away.  Then he rents a U-Haul and loads them all up and transfers them to another location to continue to rot away until he decided [sic] to cremate.”

Finally, just last month, LARA shut Swanson’s down.  State officials said they again found decomposing bodies in a maggot-infested garage that had been there for months.

We tried contacting O’Neil Swanson II at his West Bloomfield home, but he has not responded to our requests for answers.

O’Neil’s father, also named O’Neil Swanson – owns Swanson funeral homes in Detroit and Pontiac and says he has no legal connection to the Flint location.

As for the Duffer family, they want some justice for Myrna.

“I think that they should not be able to take human bodies and desecrate them, and do what they want with them without following the rules of law. They should be shut down and they should be prosecuted,” said Robert Duffer.

In addition to the state probe into licensing and health code violations, the 7 Investigators have learned that another investigation is now also underway. The Genesee County Sheriff and Prosecutor, as well as Attorney General Bill Schuette, are looking into whether criminal charges can be pursued.

Because the state is still investigating those health code and licensing complaints, they could not answer our specific questions about why it took so long to shut down the funeral home.

LARA Communications Director Jason Moon did provide this statement to us:

LARA, in conjunction with several of our bureaus and the Michigan Attorney General’s Office, shut down Swanson Funeral Home in Flint due to repeated violations of Michigan’s Health and Occupational Codes and several other state statutes.

Our department is working closely with the Attorney General’s office as the ongoing investigation into this matter continues. Following our regulatory actions in July, we have received and are investigating additional complaints against the home. Due to the ongoing investigation and pending litigation regarding this case, we cannot comment on the timeline of our actions or the details of our investigations at this time.

Michigan residents trust funeral home directors, owners, and their establishments to follow the law especially when dealing with the death of a loved one. We will continue to aggressively hold every funeral home in Michigan to the highest standards of public health and safety.

LARA inspectors want to hear from you if you have a complaint about a funeral home.

This is the statement about LARA’s actions in Flint from Bob Berg, on behalf of Swanson Funeral Home in Detroit:

Swanson Funeral Home is a Detroit-headquartered business with two locations in Detroit – one on East Grand Blvd., and one on West McNichols – and one location in Pontiac.  It has no locations in Flint.   

Swanson’s Funeral Home in Flint is owned and operated by O’Neil D. Swanson II, who is the son of O’Neil Swanson, president of Swanson Funeral Home in Detroit.  O’Neil D. Swanson II has no legal or business connection with his father’s business in Detroit. 

The actions taken by the state affect only Swanson’s Funeral Home in Flint and have no impact on Swanson Funeral Home in Detroit and Pontiac.

O’Neil D. Swanson, president of Swanson Funeral Home, said “The allegations the state has made against the Flint home are shocking and go against every principle of mortuary science.  We have served the community for 59 years and have established an unchallenged record of providing experienced, compassionate service.  I want to make it clear to all that the steps taken by the state against the Flint business do not impact us in any way.

If you have a story for Heather, please email her at hcatallo@wxyz.com or call 248-827-4473.

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