'Shocking' mistakes, violations uncovered at Valley funeral home

PHOENIX - The funeral of a loved one is a time for remembering and grieving, but when Francisco Marquez died and the family gathered for the viewing, they witnessed a horrifying mistake.

His granddaughter, Rachel told ABC15 what happened when her grandmother approached the casket.

"She gets close to the casket and looks at the body, and she's like, 'This is not my husband!'"

BODY MIX-UP

Rachel says funeral home staff at La Paz Funeral Home kept insisting it was her grandfather.

But, it was another man who was dressed in Francisco's clothes.

Not only was it the wrong body, but the family says it was the wrong casket too.

"You never expect this to happen," said Rachel.

When the family finally did get to see Francisco, the body was bloated almost beyond recognition.

"He had fluids coming out of his eyes, his ears. It was horrible," said Rachel. "It seemed like water, but it had blood in it. I was in shock. I could not believe what I was seeing."

Rachel said it happened in February at La Paz Funeral Home at 10th Street and Indian School Road in Phoenix.

PURGING

A former La Paz worker named Brenda spoke with the ABC15 Investigators. She worked there for five months. Brenda said the fluid the Marquez family saw is called purging. She said it happened more than once at La Paz.

"They [grieving families] would come and tell us, ‘You know, miss, my loved one has something coming out of them.'"

The ABC15 Investigators obtained pictures that were taken at La Paz.

Brenda looked at the photos, describing dried up blood and body fluids on the floor and the shelves in the cooler where bodies were kept.

She said sometimes it wasn't cleaned for days.

"That's all blood. You see it leaks out and then it just spills there," Brenda explained.

VIOLATIONS

La Paz was cited for six violations by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 2008. The violations included failure to properly train employees in dealing with blood exposure.

The Arizona Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers has handed down five disciplinary actions against La Paz in the last 10 years, including periods of probation and fines.

We talked with four people who once worked at La Paz and had similar concerns. Only Brenda would appear on camera. The others told us they feared losing their new jobs since the funeral business is so small.

Still, one of the former workers filed a complaint with the funeral board.

THREATENED WHISTLEBLOWER

Based on that complaint, Funeral Board Director Rudy Thomas told us he nearly completed his investigation on La Paz and was ready to bring it to the board when the former worker changed her mind.

"I thought we had a good case," said Thomas. "She informed us she was threatened by a lawsuit."

The ABC15 investigators got a copy of this letter addressed to that former employee.

It's from an attorney for La Paz warning her to "cease and desist" making what they call "inaccurate and false" statements. The La Paz attorney threatened to sue her for "lost profits."

THE OWNERS

Terry Harding runs the La Paz Funeral Home with his wife, Chela.

We asked Harding why he threatened the former worker and why he did not just let the case play out before the board.

"The board looked at it too and didn't see any relevance to it," said Harding. But the board has not yet heard the complaint.

We also asked Harding about the OSHA violations.

"OSHA came here and saw it in perfect condition when they came," said Harding.

 "Paper issues. We didn't have the little signs on the wall," he claimed.

ABC15 reminded Harding of the OSHA violation involving failure to properly train employees in dealing with blood exposure.

Harding responded, "They found nothing."

But, OSHA listed the violation as "serious".

We showed Harding the pictures obtained from inside his business. Harding insisted everything was cleaned up right away.

And as for the Marquez body mix-up, Harding said everything was fine once the memorial service started.

"We had the correct clothes on him at the time of the service," said Harding.

"We understand that it is a serious issue. We are not claiming that it wasn't, " he continued.

Harding said purging --fluids coming out of bodies -- rarely happens at La Paz and is not part of any funeral board investigation.

But, it's all Rachel and her family can remember as they try to restore dignity to a man who deserved it.

In Arizona, boards regulate many businesses. By law, a board can't investigate a business without a complaint.

So if you've got one, about any funeral business, send us an email . And file a complaint by emailing the board.

The board also provides a consumer guide for information regarding funerals and cremations in Arizona.

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