How one baby’s death led police to find infant bodies hidden in a Detroit funeral home

DETROIT, Mich.  — Early one December morning in 2014, Rachel Brown gave birth to a girl in Detroit’s Harper-Hutzel Hospital.

Immediately after she was born, the little girl, Alayah, experienced respiratory distress and died some 30 minutes later.

Her mother says a hospital worker approached her and her husband about gifting the newborn’s body to Wayne State University Medical School for science and research. Brown agreed.

Nearly four years later, Brown says Alayah’s body never made it to the medical school and still has not been laid to rest.

Michigan authorities say they’ve found improperly kept remains of fetuses and infants at a second Detroit funeral home, just one week after similar remains were found at the first. Police and license inspectors found the remains of 63 fetuses or infants — some of whom died three years ago — at Perry Funeral Home on Friday, the Detroit Police Department said.

All this comes from a lawsuit Brown filed in July. In it, she alleges that the hospital instead gave Alayah’s body to a Detroit funeral home, and may have helped authorities discover the remains of 63 fetuses or infants at Perry Funeral Home on Friday. It was the second instance in which authorities said fetal or infant remains were improperly kept at a Detroit funeral home this month.

The attorneys of Alayah’s parents said they contacted police about their lawsuit a day before the Perry Funeral Home raid, and Detroit’s police chief told reporters Friday the raid came as a result of a plaintiff’s tip.

“There wouldn’t be a criminal investigation if we had not come forward,” Brown’s attorney Peter Parks said over the weekend.

The lawsuit alleges that the hospital, funeral home and others committed intentional acts or omissions “so extreme in degree as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency and to be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.”

According to the complaint, Harper-Hutzel Hospital, part of the Detroit Medical Center alliance of providers, gave Alayah’s remains to Perry Funeral Home in May 2015 — about six months after her death — after falsely telling the home that the remains had been unclaimed or abandoned by the parents.

The lawsuit also accuses Perry of negligence, saying it never made final disposition of the body as required by state law, and instead retained custody of the remains for three years. For at least part of that time, Perry kept them at a Wayne State mortuary sciences morgue — operated separately from the medical school — where Perry has storage privileges, the lawsuit says.

Perry also negligently failed to contact Brown, “whose identity and whereabouts (were) readily available,” the suit alleges.

Funeral home raided

Police and license inspectors who raided Perry Funeral Home Friday found the remains of the 63 fetuses or infants, the Detroit Police Department said.

Thirty-seven of the dead fetuses or infants were found in three unrefrigerated boxes, police and the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, known as LARA, said. Twenty-six were in a freezer, police said.

Brown’s attorneys have not said whether Alayah’s remains were among those found Friday, where her remains are currently, or how Brown learned that the remains didn’t go to Wayne State for research. Parks, in an email to CNN on Tuesday, declined to comment further about the case.

Police haven’t publicly identified any of the remains or commented on how they came to be there. But LARA said it has suspended the funeral home’s mortuary science license, and Detroit Police Chief James Craig said his department is investigating.

LARA said some of the remains found at Perry Funeral Home on Friday were fetuses or infants that died about three years ago.

Michigan law says funeral directors generally must supervise a body’s final disposition within 60 days of receiving it. Those who don’t may be found guilty of at least a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 90 days in prison.

For bodies improperly kept beyond 180 days, a director could be charged with a felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Allegations against the hospital

Though authorities have revealed little about the remains found at Perry on Friday, Brown’s lawsuit illustrates allegations that appear to have led police to investigate.

The suit’s allegations start with Harper-Hutzel Hospital.

Brown, the suit says, “elected to make an anatomical gift to Wayne State University Medical School of Alayah’s body in the hope that it would assist medical science and research.”

Unbeknownst to Brown, the suit alleges, the hospital instead declared the baby’s remains abandoned in April 2015 and gave them to Perry Funeral Home the next month to be disposed of.

The suit further alleges that the hospital’s Body Bequest Program arrangement with Wayne State’s medical school was ending around that time, and that Harper-Hutzel didn’t inform Brown of this.

Wayne State, in a statement to CNN, said the medical school stopped accepting fetal and infant remains from Harper-Hutzel in June 2015 “because the hospital repeatedly failed to deliver remains, or notify the school of remains, in the time frame necessary for the bodies to be viable for research.”

“Paperwork was also routinely improper or inadequate,” Wayne State said.

Tonita Cheatham, spokeswoman for the Detroit Medical Center group that includes Harper-Hutzel, told CNN she wouldn’t comment on pending litigation.

CNN later attempted to ask Cheatham, by email and phone, about Wayne State’s comments on the hospital’s participation in the Body Bequest Program. Those attempts weren’t immediately successful.

Allegations against the funeral home

Brown’s complaint alleges that Perry Funeral Home received Alayah’s remains from the hospital in May 2015 and, sometime that summer, stored them at Wayne State University School of Mortuary Science morgue. The morgue is separate from the medical school research department where Brown had gifted her daughter’s remains.

The funeral home failed to contact or attempt to contact Brown about her daughter’s final disposition, according to the complaint, which also says Wayne State contributed to the mishandling of Alayah’s remains by failing to require the funeral home to present permits legally required to transfer the bodies of newborns, stillbirths and fetuses.

Wayne State has said it provided Perry Funeral Home with temporary, secure shelter for remains over the years, though it no longer accepts any remains from Perry “after the disturbing revelations on October 19.”

“The Mortuary Science Program has never been responsible for arrangements or final disposition of the remains,” Wayne State’s statement reads. “This tragic situation is not a university issue; however our thoughts and prayers go out to all of the affected families.”

Perry Funeral Home’s lawyer, Joshua I. Arnkoff, said Perry has “conducted itself within the law,” and that allegations “involve only unclaimed infant remains” from local hospitals.

“In other words, the hospitals had informed Perry that the hospitals had reached out to the parents by certified mail and/or by phone, and the families did not respond. We do not believe any of these remains involve families that paid Perry for funeral services,” Arnkoff said in a statement.

“In the case of unclaimed remains, a funeral home cannot bury remains without proper authorization, and the law in Michigan sets forth a hierarchy for authority,” Arnkoff said. “Perry relied upon and operated within that hierarchy, but Perry never received the legal authority necessary to conduct a final disposition of the remains.”

The funeral home “had not been informed that the parents of any of the deceased had desired for the remains to be donated to the medical school,” Arnkoff said.

“Perry Funeral Home has been serving the Detroit community for decades and has been a reputable, reliable and caring member of the community. The allegations being made through the press are inaccurate,” Arnkoff said.

Other remains found at a separate Detroit funeral home

Friday’s discovery came a week after LARA workers discovered the remains of 10 fetuses and one infant in a drop-down ceiling of a separate, former funeral home in Detroit.

The site of that former business — the Cantrell Funeral Home — was raided October 12 in response to an anonymous letter, authorities said.

Cantrell Funeral Home was shut down in April by LARA for multiple violations, including improper storage of embalmed bodies, with two in an advanced stage of decomposition, according to a press release.

Details about why the remains were being stored at Perry Funeral Home and the former Cantrell Funeral Home, or whether the cases are in any way related, weren’t immediately available.

Cantrell did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.

The Wayne County Medical Examiner’s office said it is working to identify the Cantrell Funeral Home remains and notify any families.