Of all the grisly details emerging from an investigation into a mortician’s shoddy treatment of human remains, none surpasses the scene of workers in biohazard suits carrying putrefying bodies in soggy cardboard caskets out of Lynn Sullivan’s cellar.
Each was a body Sullivan had been paid to cremate. One belonged to Dollie Warf, who had died at age 63 almost five months earlier.
Her shaken son, Arvin, recalled the shock of learning the news from police. “He put her in the basement and abandoned her like garbage,” Warf said.
Thoughts of her unembalmed body clung to him. “I couldn’t sleep,” he said. “I just kept on thinking about it.”
More than two months after his arrest, Sullivan is in county jail facing 72 charges, including multiple counts of larceny for failing to perform funeral services he had been paid for, falsifying business records and tampering with public documents, including accounts of which remains he buried where--or if he buried them at all.
Despite the gruesome nature of the misdeeds alleged, the major charges against Sullivan are limited to false documentation. New York law requires bodies to be buried or incinerated “within a reasonable time after death,” but Sullivan County Dist. Atty. Stephen Lungen says violations are only misdemeanors.
“It’s such an affront to human dignity to deal with people like that and to desecrate their remains this way,” Lungen said. “You would never have imagined that you can’t trust your undertaker.”
Motive is a mystery. Sullivan was known to have money troubles; he has two ex-wives and was behind in child support. His tax problems prompted the IRS to seize some of his vehicles, including a Harley-Davidson, and he had bounced checks to local businesses.
Taking cash for services never performed might have posed a way to ease the money crunch, but Lungen would not speculate on what might compel someone to bury remains in the wrong graves.
Sullivan has pleaded not guilty; no trial date has been set.
Short and stocky, with thinning white hair and wire-rimmed glasses, the 51-year-old Sullivan is described by acquaintances as friendly and professional. He ran his business out of a 19th-century stone house on a hill in this small town 80 miles northwest of New York City.
The first hint of trouble arose in August, when the county coroner found a cremation permit still attached to the death certificate of Ralph Van Valkenberg, even though Sullivan had listed his body as already cremated.
The coroner suggested that police check it out. When officers visited Sullivan on Aug. 10, they found Van Valkenberg’s 2-week-old corpse in a detached garage, stored in a cardboard casket used for cremation.
Sullivan reportedly told police he had delayed the cremation because he was short the cemetery’s $200 fee. He was arrested and released on $5,000 bond.
That might have ended the matter, had authorities not received a tip to look for another body--in a vault in the house’s basement. Police returned with a search warrant and found five more bodies not embalmed--one dead since January--in various states of decay.
Some were in cardboard caskets. One was in a zippered body bag. Lungen said bodies were leaking fluids and the stench in the cellar was overwhelming. Police also found 13 containers of remains.
Sullivan was initially indicted Sept. 4 on 42 counts and returned to jail. Investigators began trying to place the bodies and the ashes. It has proven a tedious, confounding task.
Arvin Warf, for instance, thought the container at home contained his mother’s ashes. Instead, they belong elsewhere and he was presented with his mother’s unpreserved body.
Additionally, some of the identifying brass tags in the containers gave the names of people already buried. When police then exhumed the designated graves, they found ashes belonging to other people.
For instance, records indicated one container in Sullivan’s basement held the remains of 74-year-old Joseph Self, who died in 1991. But the county had already paid Sullivan to bury Self’s ashes at a veterans’ cemetery.
Under court order, police dug up Self’s grave. They found the ashes of 78-year-old Rosemund Dunbar, who died in 1992. Next stop: Dunbar’s grave in a nearby Catholic cemetery. Investigators dug up another set of ashes but found no identifiers in the container.
With the investigation almost wrapped up, Lungen and state police have dug up eight graves. Lungen, who now has four sets of unidentified cremains in his office, said, “I’m not in a position to say the cases we know about are the only ones that exist.”
On Oct. 8, Sullivan was charged with 30 additional counts of larceny and falsifying documents. He again pleaded not guilty. In a separate proceeding, he agreed to give up his funeral director’s license.
Lungen said he believes the graveyard mix-ups have been going on since 1988, but the statute of limitations goes back just five years. He said all the swapped graves are believed to involve ashes rather than bodies.
Warf says he is no longer haunted by images of his dead mother, who was finally cremated. But he has begun lobbying with his sister, Laura Warf-Bauer, for harsher penalties for such crimes. He says the charges against Sullivan should reflect what he did to the corpses.
Lungen agrees, saying he is frustrated that he is pursuing a “paper case” for such a heinous crime.
Warf-Bauer takes consolation in that her mother’s remains were recovered. Dollie Warf’s ashes will be spread on her husband’s grave, belatedly fulfilling one of her last requests.
“It’s rough. It’s rough,” her daughter said. “But I feel like we came out as one of the luckier families.”