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."
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."
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.
A Bahrainian who grew up in Trinidad and Tobago (his family was involved in sugar cultivation), Alkhalifa began tending to the dead in 1993. Hurricane Andrew had just ripped through the region, wreaking havoc on tourism and indirectly on Alkhalifa's enterprise: publishing tourist brochures. "I said, Jesus, I need to get into a business that's not cyclical,'" he recounts, with a precise enunciation that betrays his British schooling. Shortly after that revelation he met a man who was selling a funeral home. Steady clientele, Alkhalifa figured. So he bought it.
At that time Charles Frear worked for the Florida Department of Professional Regulation (now the Department of Business and Professional Regulation). "I inspected Rafaiy's funeral homes when he first opened," Frear recalls. "It became obvious he didn't really know the business. Because he was new on the job, I was kind of hard on him." Frear says he pestered Alkhalifa about minor violations. "Nothing too major," he notes. When Frear retired a year later, Alkhalifa called and asked the former inspector if he would examine his businesses so they would pass annual state inspections. Frear said yes. "I used to go around monthly to look at each of his embalming rooms," says Frear. "He was always within state limits as far as sanitation. He never had a delinquent inspection."
Not long after Alkhalifa began operations, someone called asking if he would bury a balsero, a Cuban refugee whose body had been recovered at sea after a tragically unsuccessful attempt to flee the island. It would be a pauper's funeral. Alkhalifa would have to do it for free. He said yes. Soon he was inundated. "Within three or four months I buried about 22 or 23 balseros. The Cuban people were very happy, and my business just took off."
He had stumbled into a market niche -- low-cost funerals for Latin-American immigrants of modest means, nearly all of whom are Catholic. Today he owns four funeral homes: One Price Funerals, Funeraria Nacional Latina, Funeraria Cubana, and Funeraria La Católica. Alkhalifa opened the last, La Católica, about three years ago. Located on Bird Road near the Palmetto Expressway, it was advertised as a "Catholic funeral home." Almost immediately the Archdiocese of Miami objected, claiming Alkhalifa was not authorized to use its name. As a result Alkhalifa runs a disclaimer with his ads that reads, "Not affiliated with the Archdiocese of Miami." It was the beginning of a tense relationship.
For Catholic funerals Alkhalifa contracted with a division of the archdiocese that provides either priests or deacons to preside at burial services. The man who assigns church officials to such services is Deacon Ray Ortega. Alkhalifa says he grew unhappy with the conduct of the deacons Ortega was sending his way. "I would smell this alcohol on their breaths," he claims. "I would never confront them because I have too much respect for them. But I knew they were tipsy. During the eulogy I would see these deacons spit and slur their words with unfailing regularity."
Sometime in 1998 he confronted Ortega about the problem. The two argued, Alkhalifa says, so he took his business elsewhere, using priests who were not contracted through Ortega. (Alkhalifa puts his funeral volume then at about 1200 per year.)
For his part Deacon Ortega denies any feud. "He keeps saying I have a dispute with him. I never had a dispute with that guy," Ortega retorts. "I just don't talk to him. Like I say, I don't even want to talk about the guy." (NBC 6's lawyer contends that Ortega stopped working with Alkhalifa because deacons "refused to be assigned to those facilities.")
Meanwhile Alkhalifa was capitalizing on his reputation as the poor-man's funeral home. In 2000 he donated services to some of those Cuban refugees who perished on the trip that brought Elian Gonzalez to Miami. "I gave seven free funerals to the people who died in the Elian trip," he says. "For three days we just shut down the business and did this for the community." It may have been a genuine public service, but it also was something of a public-relations coup. And it brought Alkhalifa to the attention of the press.
Months later, on September 19, 2000, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel published a story about Alkhalifa's unique business arrangement with Cuba's communist government. Conveying dead relatives to Cuba for burial, the article stated, "can be arranged at the year-old Funeral Information Center [one of Alkhalifa's companies] in Little Havana, the only company in Florida using a U.S. Treasury Department license to regularly transport the dead back and forth from the Caribbean island." Alkhalifa was quoted as saying, "Everything about Cuba is slowly opening up, and that is also affecting our type of business."
His entrepreneurial spirit, however, was fraught with potential liabilities. As the article noted, "Any funeral home can apply for a permit to transport bodies back and forth from Cuba, but few in South Florida do so because that is considered doing business with the Cuban government." In Miami, of course, that can bring a businessman the wrong kind of attention.
Not long after the Sun-Sentinel story appeared, workers at Miami's Woodlawn Park Cemetery, acting on a family's request, exhumed a casket holding the remains of a loved one in order to move it closer to other relatives. Upon retrieval, the casket was discovered to be leaking. One of Alkhalifa's funeral homes had provided the coffin, so Woodlawn officials called him. "Bodies that are decomposing release fluids," Alkhalifa says with a shrug. And sometimes caskets leak. "I'm not a manufacturer of caskets," he adds. He agreed to provide a new one without charge.
On September 29, 2000, Alkhalifa dispatched Rene Alonzo to pick up the body in its casket, bring it to his One Price Funerals in Miami Lakes, and transfer it to another casket. "I told him to put the leaky casket inside so we could burn it." Instead, Alkhalifa says, his employee left the unoccupied casket in One Price's parking lot. "It created a bad stench," he recounts. "Neighbors called police and police called the health department."
That was a Friday. By Monday Alkhalifa had fired Alonzo. According to the business owner, Alonzo didn't take it well. "Victim stated that he fired the suspect.... On today's date the suspect returned at 0900 hours and proceeded to punch the victim numerous times to the face causing slight movement in the victim's tooth," a police report reads. "As suspect left he stated he would return to finish the job with his firearm." Alkhalifa quickly obtained a court-issued restraining order to keep Alonzo away from him.
Alonzo acknowledges an altercation took place but says his ex-boss owed him money and was refusing to pay. Other than that, Alonzo says, he can't comment because he is working with authorities who are investigating Alkhalifa.
City of Miami police officers handled the assault investigation because the building where it allegedly occurred, 151 NW 37th Ave., is within city limits. A simultaneous investigation of the leaky-casket incident, however, was conducted by the Miami-Dade County Police Department. Following an inspection of One Price Funerals, the county cops wrote this report: "Additional investigation revealed that there were several health violations such as blood splatter on the walls and on the ceiling. The sinks appeared to be clogged with body fluids.... Alkhalifa allowed these conditions to exist and exposed his employees and other persons to these unsanitary conditions."
In spite of noting and reporting the visible injuries Alonzo allegedly inflicted upon Alkhalifa, Miami police never charged Alonzo with assault. The Miami-Dade County cops, on the other hand, arrested Alkhalifa and charged him with three criminal misdemeanors concerning the Miami Lakes operation: no certificate for use and occupancy, doing business without a license, and creating a nuisance injurious to health. Police carted him off to jail, where he was allowed to post bail. One Price Funerals has been closed since the incident.
Alkhalifa's arrest still leaves his lawyers slapping their foreheads in bewilderment. "This is police overkill, like using a hammer to swat down a gnat," grumbles attorney Benedict Kuehne, adding that problems of this type are "overseen by regulators at the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, and they resolve matters every day without fanfare." (A spokeswoman from the DBPR, speaking generally, says complaints about funeral homes are normally processed by her department, which commonly issues fines as punishment.)
Frear, the former DBPR inspector who was hired by Alkhalifa, says he can't recall a mortuary being criminally charged during his tenure at the department. The incident that came closest, he says, was a funeral home discovered storing bodies at 58 degrees Fahrenheit after Hurricane Andrew (state law requires bodies to be stored at no more than 40 degrees). The owner was fined $5000.
It is still not entirely clear why officials chose to treat Alkhalifa's case criminally instead of considering it a civil infraction. Assistant State Attorney Ergio Fernandez will say only that health risks to the community warrant criminal sanctions. "We take environmental crimes very seriously," he declares.
Alkhalifa believes there's a more sinister motive at work. "The real reason they can pull some bullshit like that is because I'm doing business with Cuba," he fumes. "Powerful people downtown just go gaga when they hear that."
About two weeks after Alkhalifa bailed out of jail, a Miami-Dade patrol officer stopped by his office and asked him to come to police headquarters to answer some questions. Alkhalifa agreed. He went without his lawyer. Alkhalifa says the cop handcuffed him for the trip.
At the west Miami-Dade headquarters Alkhalifa, freed from the handcuffs, was led to a room filled with about half a dozen police and U.S. Customs officials. They wanted to know about his business with Cuba. (The Miami-Dade Police Department's public-information office acknowledges Alkhalifa was brought in and questioned about Cuba but wouldn't go into further detail.)
Recounts Alkhalifa: "The whole basis of my three-hour interrogation was: What is my connection to Cuba? How do I send the bodies? Who inspects the bodies? What contraband do I put in the caskets? At that point I asked them what did they mean, and they said do I put money in the caskets? I said, I don't have enough for me here. I'm not going to send any to Castro.' They wanted the names of people I dealt with at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C."
Eventually the interrogation concluded and the cop drove him back to his office. This time his hands were free. Neither Alkhalifa nor his lawyers have heard anything more from officials about their peculiar interest in his Cuban business dealings. "If, as some suspect, he is undergoing a microscopic examination because he is shipping bodies to Cuba, that is outrageous," says attorney Kuehne.
One law-enforcement source, who asked not to be identified, says Alkhalifa's use of aliases aroused their interest. The businessman acknowledges his name has been spelled differently at various times. "This is such bullshit," he scoffs. "Why don't you come here and ask me what's going on? Sometimes with my Spanish-speaking customers, I tell them my name is Raphael rather than Rafaiy. Instead of Alkhalifa, which is a mouthful, I say Kalifa. You can use any name in this country as long as you don't use them criminally."
The criminal charges against him ended up being tossed out when the prosecutor appeared in court believing he had agreed to a postponement, only to find the defense ready for trial. "There was miscommunication between the defense and prosecutors," Ergio Fernandez explains.
The judge dismissed the case without prejudice, which meant authorities could reopen it at a future date. And so they did, six months later, just in time to go live with Alicia Ortega on NBC 6, serving search warrants and carting off computers and business records from Alkhalifa's office. What inspired the renewed interest? Could it have been a television station in pursuit of a dramatic story designed to boost ratings? Fernandez demurs. "Anytime you have the dead remains of loved ones who are left leaking in the middle of someone's driveway, that's a cause for concern," he says. "It's a very unusual case, it's a case that we can't just let go by the wayside."
A few days before her reports were broadcast, Alicia Ortega contacted Alkhalifa, but when he figured out she was Deacon Ray Ortega's daughter he refused to meet with her. He also called the station to complain that, given his history with her father, she should not report the story.
"We investigated this whole question Mr. Alkhalifa had in regards to a conflict," says NBC 6's news director Geraghty. "I can see because Alicia and Ray Ortega are related it could have the appearance of a conflict of interest. We spent extensive time investigating and found that there was no conflict of interest." The station did send Stu Jacobs, the senior manager in charge of special projects, to interview Alkhalifa, who concluded as a result that Ortega was off the story.
Alkhalifa also believes that after he fired Alonzo, the ex-employee approached Ray Ortega and asked to speak with the deacon's daughter. His suspicions were later bolstered by the station's attorney, who wrote in response to an inquiry that "an unnamed third party asked Deacon Ortega for assistance in reaching his daughter. Merely passing a message to his daughter from an acquaintance does not present a conflict of interest."
After NBC 6 contacted him, Alkhalifa called his lawyers. They in turn engaged media consultant Seth Gordon, the well-known founder of GDB + Partners, a Miami public-relations firm. Over the years Gordon has had extensive dealings with the press and has developed a reputation for skillful spinning. Even before Ortega's reports were broadcast, Gordon prepared a lengthy press release and posted it on Business Wire, an Internet service that publishes industry communiqués and other global business information.
"Funeral-home operator believes WTVJ-NBC 6 orchestrated Live TV' police raid to boost ratings," Gordon's release read. "Station denies story was motivated by bad blood between funeral-home owner and father of the reporter handling the story." Though it was pretty juicy stuff, none of the major media bit -- not the other local TV stations and not the Miami Herald, which maintains a news partnership with NBC 6 and frequently promotes the station's stories. (The paper did not advertise Ortega's funeral-home reports.)
The only news organizations responding to Gordon's press release were New Times and the Columbia Journalism Review, the respected national trade journal published under the auspices of Columbia University's graduate school of journalism. In its current issue, the magazine bestows upon NBC 6 one of its notorious darts for the station's conduct regarding the Alkhalifa story.
Today, nearly three months after the televised raid, no charges have been filed against Rafaiy Alkhalifa, and Miami-Dade Police officials decline to comment on the status of their investigation. Alicia Ortega has since left NBC 6 to be with her husband, who works for a television station in the Dominican Republic. News director Geraghty stresses that her departure was unrelated to the Alkhalifa controversy. (She could not be reached for comment.)
On behalf of Alkhalifa, Seth Gordon wrote to station general manager Don Browne and invoked the code of ethics of the Radio-Television News Directors Association: "Professional electronic journalists should ... present analytical reporting based on professional perspective, not personal bias."
NBC 6's counsel, Lynn Oberlander, who would not comment for this story, responded in a letter to Gordon: "Mr. Alkhalifa's operations are currently under investigation by the State Attorney's Office, the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, and the Miami-Dade Police. We stand behind our report as a fair, accurate, and balanced review of allegations concerning the operation of these funeral homes."
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