Double Exposure

If you believe NBC 6, he's an unethical businessman who exploits the poor. If you believe him, NBC 6 tossed ethics aside in a desperate bid for ratings

At 6:00 p.m. this past April 26, NBC 6's stern-faced anchors Jennifer Valoppi and Tony Segreto greeted viewers with a troubling report.

"Almost all of us at one time have had to deal with the loss of a loved one, including making funeral arrangements. And certainly most people assume when they go to a funeral home their loved ones are treated with respect and dignity," Valoppi intoned.

Segreto picked up the cue: "But tonight an NBC 6 six-month investigation reveals some disturbing allegations of wrongdoing. The allegations come from former employees and clients from three South Florida funeral homes. Alicia Ortega has been working this story since October. She joins us live from northwest Miami."

Perfect timing: Reporter Alicia Ortega was able to go live as cops raided Funeraria Nacional Latina
Perfect timing: Reporter Alicia Ortega was able to go live as cops raided Funeraria Nacional Latina

The camera cut to Ortega. "Tony and Jennifer, just within the last five minutes, take a look behind me, Miami-Dade police executing search warrants at this location, 151 NW 37th Avenue." Officers in polo shirts could be seen moving in and out of Funeraria Nacional Latina, one of three funeral homes, she explained, owned by a man named Rafaiy Alkhalifa (pronounced Raf-eye Al-cuh-leef-uh). Ortega continued: "Miami-Dade police telling us they opened their investigation after we began investigating. Here's what we found."

The program then zipped to prerecorded interviews:A woman named Rosalina Mitchel complained that the funeral home buried her father wrapped in plastic "as if he were an animal," even though she said she paid to have him dressed in clothes she provided.

A woman named Rosa Marrero claimed that Alkhalifa botched sending her dead cousin to Cuba for burial, and the body was held in storage for months while paperwork was completed.

A crematory worker said a box containing the skeletal remains of a person disinterred and held by Alkhalifa arrived at the crematorium with the remains of two individuals inside, not one.

But Ortega's trophy interview subject was a former Alkhalifa employee who had requested anonymity. Wearing a baseball cap and videotaped in silhouette, the man alleged that "60 to 70 percent" of bodies were not embalmed even though families had paid for the procedure, and that workers would steal flowers after funerals and resell them. The anonymous source said he quit because Alkhalifa owed him money.

Toward the end of the report, Alkhalifa appeared briefly to defend himself. He denied the embalming and flower charges, adding he has never turned away a family because of money, a practice that has earned him the enmity of others in the industry. Later Ortega summarized Alkhalifa's reaction to the corpse wrapped in plastic by paraphrasing his response: The contract may have specified a "direct burial," which means no cosmetic treatment.

The next day NBC 6 aired a second report on Alkhalifa's business practices, pointing out that he provides low-cost, sometimes free funerals to his poor clients. Then the station noted that his businesses failed to file fourteen "bodies handled" reports in a five-month period, as required by state regulators.

The segments seemed to be hard-hitting consumer exposés. But another story went untold, a behind-the-scenes tale equally worthy of splashy TV-news treatment. In essence Alkhalifa claims reporter Alicia Ortega was motivated by a business feud he had with her father. NBC 6 acknowledges that Ortega's father put her in touch with an unnamed source who provided information about Alkhalifa's business practices. But the station asserts there was nothing questionable about that arrangement. Alkhalifa, however, says he knows the identity of the secret source and believes the station's decision to rely on him indeed raises serious questions. The source, according to Alkhalifa, is a former employee he fired for incompetence and against whom he later filed criminal-assault charges.

At press time authorities still had not charged Alkhalifa. Now the businessman is waging his own media campaign to combat what he says was unfair and unethical treatment by WTVJ-TV, better known as NBC 6.

On April 28, a day after the second report was broadcast, the 59-year-old Alkhalifa invited employee and friend Delia Kennedy, her two teenage sons, and her mother to his Doral home for a dinner of shish-kebab, corn, and mashed potatoes. After the meal they all filed solemnly into the living room and Alkhalifa slipped a cassette into his VCR. He had been away when NBC 6 blasted him and still hadn't seen the two reports.

As he watched, Alkhalifa could scarcely believe his eyes. Ortega had never interviewed him, yet she was the reporter on the story. Given the business dispute he had with her father, he didn't think that was right. When Ortega had first contacted him, Alkhalifa protested to NBC 6 executives, who accommodated his concerns by sending a producer to interview him. Alkhalifa assumed that meant Ortega was off the story. But there she was, microphone in hand, at the exact moment police were raiding his offices. And that was strange, too. Ortega must have coordinated with law-enforcement authorities so she could broadcast live just as officers were searching his building.

Three minutes into the report, when Ortega trotted out her smoking-gun anonymous source, the group assembled in Alkhalifa's living room erupted. To hear Delia Kennedy tell it, the shadowy figure was far from anonymous. Her two boys knew who it was right away. "The first thing they say is: Mom, what's Rene doing there?'" Kennedy recalls. They were referring to an ex-employee named Rene Alonzo. "I knew it was Rene immediately myself," Kennedy continues, "the way he moved, the way he talked. I mean, I went dancing with this man."

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