Family Grieves for Murdered Son, and Now his Accidental Cremation

January 12, 2011
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imageWhen Michelle Bias-Sullivan left her house in the Riverbend neighborhood last Tuesday night, her son Ralph Bias, 20, was playing a video game.

“I said, ‘I’m going to bingo, Ralph. I’ll be back,'” she said.

Those turned out to be her last words to him. He was killed the next day in a drive-by shooting on the Pontchartrain Expressway.

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But, because of a mix-up at the Orleans Parish coroner’s office, Bias-Sullivan and her husband Ralph Sullivan won’t have their last moments with their son. His body was cremated by accident.

“I don’t want another family to go through what we’ve gone through,” said Bias-Sullivan, who hopes to press the coroner to implement stricter identification procedures.

Coroner Frank Minyard declined to comment on Tuesday, but has scheduled an 11:30 a.m. press conference Tuesday to address the matter.

On Tuesday, during a meeting with the coroner’s staff, the family and their lawyer got some details about a switch of corpses that resulted in the accidental cremation.

The coroner did an autopsy on Bias on Friday morning, said lawyer Allain Hardin. But that afternoon, when Littlejohn Funeral Home came to pick up the body, “they were told the body was not there and that they should come back in 30 minutes,” Hardin said.

When they returned, the coroner’s staff said that Bias’ remains had been picked up by Heritage Funeral Home.

“Heritage had come to retrieve the body of an elderly white man. But instead of getting him, they got the body of Ralph Bias, a 20-year-old black male,” Hardin said.

And within a few hours, Heritage cremated the body, before the coroner’s office realized the mistake. Heritage owner Arthur Hickerson referred all questions to his lawyer, who didn’t return calls Tuesday evening.

Bodies at the crowded coroner’s office are stacked two to a table, the coroner’s staff told the family. “So Mr. Bias and the elderly man were on the same table,” Hardin said, repeating what the family was told.

The coroner’s staff told the family that when they pick up a body, they attach two labels, one plastic hospital-style band around the wrist and a second one attached to the handle of the body bag.

On Friday, the two body bags were apparently stacked in a way that the handles were in the same location, side by side, the family was told. So someone confused the two labels. And Bias’ body was put into Heritage’s hearse and taken to the crematorium.

“Or that’s the explanation we got,” Hardin said, noting that the coroner’s office also said that the elderly man’s body had gone unclaimed. So by definition, no family member was present to identify it before cremation, as is required by state law. “But apparently no one opened the body bag or looked at the tags. And no one took the time to compare the body with the death certificate they’d prepared for an elderly white man,” Hardin said.

Many parish coroners pay to cremate or bury unclaimed bodies after a requisite period of time.

Because of the mix-up, the Sullivans have not even been able to get their son’s ashes, because the crematorium needs a note of explanation first, Hardin said.

The couple had discussed burying their son’s casket in a plot in Providence Memorial Park, where his grandmother and great-grandmother are buried. Now, there will be no casket. And the funeral planned for Plymouth Rock Baptist Church will now be a memorial.

No last goodbyes for the playful young man who his parents said made them laugh, the computer whiz who could fix any problem on their laptops.

“It’s like a nightmare. You just want to wake up,” Sullivan said softly as tears rolled down his wife’s cheeks.

Outside on the porch, Bias’ paternal grandfather, Edward Tillman, looked toward the levee, deep in thought.

On Wednesday, he lost his grandson, he said. And on Friday, thanks to a bureaucratic blunder, “the family lost the chance to put my grandson down nice, like we put his grandma and her mother before that.”

It’s unfathomable, he said. “Two blows at one time.”

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