By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Terrence McCoy
By Jeff Weinberger
By Ryan Yousefi
By Chuck Strouse
By Terrence McCoy
By Terrence McCoy
Adds Alkhalifa: "Of course it was Rene. I recognized the way he talked. I recognized his countenance. Some of my other employees told me, when they had seen the news, that it was Rene. I was aghast."
Alkhalifa was aghast because he had fired Alonzo back in October after the employee allegedly mishandled a casket that contained human remains, which led police and health officials to investigate. Following his dismissal, Alonzo reportedly assaulted Alkhalifa, who immediately filed a criminal complaint and obtained a restraining order against his former employee. As if that weren't enough to disqualify Alonzo as a trustworthy source for an investigative news report, Alkhalifa and Kennedy claim Alonzo also attempted, without success, to hire away some of Alkhalifa's employees in order to open his own, competing mortuary business.
NBC 6 news director Tim Geraghty will not reveal the identity of the anonymous source, and Alonzo himself categorically denies he's the dark figure in the reports. "I gave no statements to NBC 6," he insists. "Alicia Ortega has desperately been trying to get in touch with me, and I know her dad personally. But I didn't talk to them."
Besides his astonishment that NBC 6 would consider Alonzo a credible source, Alkhalifa believes the station's reports did not adequately represent his responses to the allegations against him. The woman who complained her father was wrapped in plastic? That's how bodies arrive at funeral homes from the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner's Office. In this case, Alkhalifa contends, the family paid for a direct burial, meaning the body goes directly into the ground, as is. (While Alkhalifa asserts it was a direct burial, Ortega showed the contract on-camera and reported that it did not mention direct burial.) The body destined for Cuba that lingered in storage? Alkhalifa says a dispute between relatives in Cuba and relatives in the United States kept the body in limbo until the matter was eventually settled and the body was buried here. The box sent to the crematorium containing the remains of two individuals? They had been stored that way to save money, Alkhalifa explains, though he admits his employees erred by not separating the remains.
When both sides are carefully examined, a more nuanced picture emerges: Alkhalifa appears less the crooked businessman and more the discount funeral-home operator whose practices at times can be sloppy. But NBC 6's combative approach to the story arguably nullified even the valid criticisms of Alkhalifa. (State regulators have cited him four times since 1994: once for delivering misidentified remains to a client, twice in 1995 for advising a family on a funeral without a licensed funeral director present, and once in 1996 for misplacing records pertaining to a cremation.)
The most serious charges made in the televised reports -- allegations that Alkhalifa's businesses stole flowers and failed to embalm bodies -- were made anonymously and without independent corroboration. Only the silhouetted former employee claimed that flowers had been stolen. Ortega reported that embalming improprieties were alleged by "two former employees," one of whom was never described, the other apparently being the silhouetted figure. News director Geraghty says the station followed normal reporting procedures, but he won't provide details. "In this and every other story," he reports, "we do checks to make sure the people we are speaking to are giving us truthful accounts as to what occurred and are not talking to us simply because they have an ax to grind."
That, however, is precisely Alkhalifa's grievance. He angrily accuses the station of granting a compromised source a platform from which to launch damaging allegations. His anger is compounded by cynicism. Alicia Ortega's investigative report, six long months in the making, just happened to be ready for broadcast on April 26, the first day of the South Florida television market's spring ratings period. Conducted by Nielsen Media Research,the ratings are crucial in determining a station's advertising rates. That, in turn, often puts pressure on news departments to produce sensational stories that will lure viewers during the ratings period. This time NBC 6 came out a winner. Its late-evening newscast decisively topped all competitors, which prompted general manager Don Browne to boast to the Miami Herald: "We came back and succeeded by following a course of doing solid, old-fashioned journalism. We didn't promote breast-size stories. I think the intelligence of the audience is paying off."
Burying the dead or, more accurately, preparing the dead for burial is not a pretty business. Bodies disfigured by trauma often must be cosmetically reconstructed for viewing by grieving family members. Corpses that have been autopsied must be sewn up. Cadavers, whole or in parts, must be cleaned, drained of blood, embalmed, dressed, and physically handled. Despite the seeming unpleasantness, the mortuary and funeral business is crowded; competition is fierce. Rafaiy Alkhalifa's strategy for success is simple: Do it cheaper. "Our prices are 50 percent less than everybody else," he is fond of gloating. But keeping costs to an absolute minimum carries risk in a regulated industry where the margin for horror is high if a mistake is made. Not only has Alkhalifa made his share of mistakes, he seems to have a knack for bringing unwanted attention his way.