NEW ORLEANS – After a drive-by shooting victim was cremated by mistake, the coroner in New Orleans put part of the blame on inadequate morgue facilities and a high rate of violent and accidental deaths, which left bodies stacked on top of each other and stored for months in refrigerator trucks that sometimes fail.
Officials said Ralph Bias, a 20-year-old black man killed last week in a drive-by shooting on Interstate 10, was mistakenly cremated in place of a 60-year-old white man, after his body was turned over to the wrong funeral home.
On Wednesday, Orleans Parish coroner Dr. Frank Minyard said Bias' body had been stacked under another that was scheduled for cremation. The identification tags were tangled and the attendant read the wrong one, believing it was attached to Bias' body bag, he said.
Minyard acknowledged however that the attendant failed to open the bag and identify the body by the wrist band attached to it.
"I'm not going to deny responsibility in this," Minyard said. "This is a horrible error, on my part, my office's part. It was something that never happened before."
Others were to blame as well, Minyard said: the funeral home that picked up the body, the crematory, and the city which has failed to begin construction on a new morgue.
For more than seven months after Hurricane Katrina flooded the old morgue, Minyard worked out of the trunk of his car. The morgue is now housed in an old funeral home which does not have storage facilities for bodies, so they are stored in three refrigerator trucks out back.
They average 80 bodies a day in storage, Minyard said. Many are held for months.
"I think that it's bordering on criminal that we have to keep refrigerated trucks that are parked in the back parking lot," he said. "It's not right, it's inhumane."
City officials did not return several messages asking about plans to build the new office. Minyard said most of the money had already been secured and he did not know why construction had not begun.
Orleans Parish Assistant District Attorney Chris Bowman said Wednesday that his office has received no complaints of criminal conduct in this matter.
Attorney Allain Hardin, who represents the Bias family, said he understands that the coroner's office is busy, but if procedures had been followed the mistake would not have happened.
"Mr. Bias was a 20-year-old black male. The person who was supposed to be cremated was a 60-year-old white male," Hardin said. "Louisiana law requires a positive identification by the family or someone in a position to make it before a body is taken to the crematory. One look and they would have been able to tell a mistake was made."
Arthur Hickerson of Heritage Funeral Home, which received the body, attended Wednesday's news conference but referred all questions to his attorney Regina Scotto Wedig, who refused to say if procedures had been followed before sending the body to the crematory.
Bias' mother, Michelle Bias-Sullivan, said Minyard had apologized to her family, but she was not sure she accepted.
"Does he really understand how hard this is for a family?" Bias-Sullivan asked Wednesday.
Hardin said he was able to secure the young man's ashes on Wednesday and the family planned a funeral service on Saturday.
Bias-Sullivan was not sure Saturday's service would give her any peace after suffering over her son's slaying and the mistaken cremation. She had planned to have an open casket for her son, saying she wanted to kiss him one last time before he was buried.
"I'm not sure how I'm going to feel seeing an urn standing there and not having his body," she said. "I've never been to a funeral with an urn before."
No arrests have been made in Bias' Jan. 5 death.