Cremation provider held ashes for ‘ransom,’ according to grieving family

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DENVER -- A cremation provider refused to hand over ashes to a grieving Colorado family, and the FOX31 Denver Problem Solvers has learned it’s not the first time Heritage Cremation Providers has been accused of withholding ashes for money.

The Problem Solvers started investigating Heritage Cremation Provider after being contacted by Ed and Kim Svercauski. Ed claimed he found Heritage online and was quoted a $695 price to cremate his mother-in-law, Laura Garner.

But two days later, Svercauski received a bill for $1,500, “more than twice the advertised price," he said.

When Svercauski said he contacted the cremation company’s owner, A.J. Damiano, to ask about the increase, he was told he would have to pay in full if he wanted Garner's ashes.

“They’re basically holding ashes for ransom,” Svercauski said.

And when the Problem Solvers contacted Damiano, he said the same thing.

“Ask the family to pay their bill. When they pay their bill they will see their cremated remains," Damiano said.

The Problem Solvers did some digging into Damiano’s background and found he has been accused of using “bait-and-switch tactics several times in the past" and he has been sued in other states for withholding ashes from grieving families.

The Problem Solvers also discovered Damiano is not a licensed funeral director. Heritage Cremation has been kicked out of other states, including Florida, Oregon and Tennessee, because it’s not a brick and mortar funeral home but an online service that subcontracts to other mortuaries for a fee.

According to Garner’s death certificate, she was cremated by A to D mortuary in Texas.

A to D was repeatedly contacted, trying to locate Garner's ashes, but calls were not returned. A to D contacted Garner’s family, claiming it sent her remains to the address they had on file for Heritage Cremation, in Colorado Springs.

The Problem Solvers visited the Colorado Springs office and found there is no mortuary or crematorium there. A secretary said the space is used by Heritage Cremation for mail delivery only and it is then forwarded to an address out of state.

Mortuary science professor Martha Thayer said Colorado is the only state that does not require funeral homes and funeral directors to be licensed.

“And because of that, it's completely legal for you to start Heidi’s funeral home today, register with [the Department of Regulatory Agencies] and you’re completely legit," Thayer said.

Thayer said that’s why it’s so important for Coloradans to do their homework before their loved one passes.

Kim Svercauski said that’s something she wishes she would have done.

“We just want (Heritage Cremation) to stop taking advantage, stealing someone’s loved on," she said. "It’s just disgusting."

Kim Svercauski had given up all hope of getting her mother’s ashes, but the Problem Solvers were not going to let that happen.

After many phone calls, Damiano was convinced to return Garner's ashes to Kim Svercauski’s sister.

Heritage Cremation, which also goes by the name Legacy Funeral Services, is under investigation with the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies.

It is against the law in all states for a cremation company to withhold ashes for payment.

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