Funeral homes of horror
Illustration by Jason Edmiston
A sobbing Raúl Muñoz lurched toward a varnished wood coffin at the foot of a small church in Camagüey, Cuba. It was 2 o'clock the morning of November 18, 2006, a little more than a month since Muñoz's son, Yetsiyel, committed suicide by jumping from the 14th floor of a Hialeah building. The day had arrived for the dead young man's viewing. Surrounded by relatives and friends, Yetsiyel's father opened the casket and exhaled a loud gasp.
Muñoz's eyes widened in horror. In the casket was the corpse of a Haitian man who clearly wasn't his son.
The panicked father immediately dialed his wife, Nancy, who was still in Miami. "They sent us the wrong body!" he blurted. A terrified Nancy dialed the phone number for Funeraria Latina Nacional at 151 NW 37th Ave., near the Flagler Dog Track, where she and her husband had made final arrangements for Yetsiyel. The owner, Rafaiy Alkhalifa (pronounced Raf-eye Al-cuh-leef-uh), profusely apologized for the mixup.
He assured her that he had Yetsiyel's body and would deliver it to Camagüey November 20 at no extra charge. Nancy left to join her husband in Cuba, instructing two family members to identify the body before allowing Alkhalifa to ship it. He never came through with the missing corpse. On November 21, in the Brickell Avenue office of his lawyer, the funeral home owner informed Yetsiyel's relatives that the young man's body "had been mistakenly cremated," according to a 2008 lawsuit filed by the Muñoz family against Alkhalifa.
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When the shocked family members demanded the ashes, Alkhalifa dropped another bomb. He had given the remains to the family of Marcos Mustelier, the dead Haitian he had mistakenly shipped to Cuba. Mustelier's mother, under the belief she had received her son's ashes, scattered Yetsiyel's dust at sea. Alkhalifa allegedly begged Muñoz's kin "not to notify the media because he would lose his license and business."
The Muñoz case plus two other pending lawsuits and more than a decade's worth of administrative and criminal investigative material against Alkhalifa reveal him to be one unsavory businessman who desecrates the funeral home profession.
In addition to mistakenly cremating Yetsiyel and shipping the wrong body, Alkhalifa has been accused of losing the ashes of a cremated corpse, holding another body hostage, losing track of cadavers, misidentifying remains, running unsanitary funeral homes without proper licenses, and pilfering a half-million dollars from a funeral trust fund controlled by the State of Florida.
"Rafaiy is the scumbag of the industry," says Verl Shaw, a crematory owner who used to do business with Alkhalifa. "Rafaiy does things half-assed. He doesn't seem to care about the families or the trade. He just takes care of Rafaiy. He's treated pretty much throughout the industry as a pariah because every time he does business with somebody, he burns 'em."
(Full disclosure: Most of the documents used in this story were obtained by co-author Robert Dunlap, who worked as a paralegal for the law firm of Don Russo, an attorney representing the family of Estelle Vega, a deceased woman whose ashes Alkhalifa allegedly released to a stranger in 2005.)
A single rosebud pokes out of the breast pocket of Rafaiy Alkhalifa's light-gray two-piece suit. With its slightly wilted petals, the deep-red flower is a somber reminder of his line of work. This past July 16, shortly before 5 p.m., the tall man with fine gray hair and dark-cocoa skin strolls the halls of Funeraria Latina Nacional, where 17 years ago he got into the business of burying and cremating the dead. Alkhalifa's black loafers click on the terrazzo floor leading into the main chapel, bathed in a dim orange light. He walks toward the corpse of an elderly Hispanic woman resting inside a sparkly pearl-white coffin.
"This is one of the most expensive caskets you can buy," Alkhalifa proclaims. "Other funeral homes will charge their customers $3,000 for a casket like this. I sell it for $300." He walks outside and points to a sign on his building. It reads, "Cremations Express: $395."
With the rabid tenacity of a used-car salesman willing to cater to or, some critics might say, bamboozle low-income customers, Alkhalifa has cornered the market on cheap death rituals in Miami-Dade County, where burials at other funeral homes run $8,000 to $30,000. During an hourlong interview, Alkhalifa casts himself as the outsider in an industry dominated by Cuban-Americans who despise him because he keeps prices low. To hear him tell it, Alkhalifa is an honest businessman who puts too much faith and trust in employees who burn him.
He insists none of the lawsuits, the administrative complaints, or even a criminal investigation into his business practices has anything to do with him. "A lot of people are not happy with the way I do business," Alkhalifa says. "Because of me, no one can raise their prices."
Inside his spacious office, Alkhalifa sits in a chair at his desk, his back facing a wall lined with various porcelain and wood urns. Born March 18, 1944, in the South American country of Guyana, Alkhalifa says he grew up in Trinidad and Tobago, where his family was involved in sugar-cane cultivation. He attended a Christian boarding school in London. "I grew up with a father who told me: 'Don't play to lose,'" Alkhalifa says.
He came to Miami in the late '80s with his then-wife. He boasts he bought the Townhouse Hotel on 20th Street in Miami Beach but sold it in 1998 because business was bad. He blames the shooting of two German tourists in 1994. "No one was coming," he says. "And the Beach was always a tough market. Rain falls on Memorial Day weekend, you are dead in the water."
(Miami-Dade County property and court records show Universal Investments Unlimited has owned the Townhouse since 1986. Alkhalifa has never been a director or officer in that company, according to Universal's incorporation records. In a 1999 New Times cover story about his battle against local TV station NBC 6 over an exposé about his funeral home business, Alkhalifa claimed he published tourist brochures but that after Hurricane Andrew ripped through South Florida, he needed to get into a business that wasn't cyclical.)
In 1993, Alkhalifa says, he purchased the 37th Avenue funeral home and began tending to the dead. Soon he received a phone call from someone who wanted to bury a Cuban refugee whose body had been recovered at sea. Alkhalifa did it for free. Soon he became the incarnation of Saint Gertrude, patron saint of the dead, for destitute Cuban immigrants and balseros. He proudly holds up a 2007 plaque from El Presidio Político Histórico Cubano honoring him. "Ask them who handles their funerals," Alkhalifa says. "Who takes care of them? Me."
But a year after entering the funeral home business, he was already running into trouble. On February 23, 1994, Alpha Alvarez signed a prepaid contract for the cremation of her father, Francisco Raphael Carro. Five months later, he passed away, and Alvarez authorized Funeraria Latina to transport the body. On June 17, 1994, Alkhalifa's funeral home shipped Carro's remains to Van Orsdel Crematory to be incinerated.
Two weeks later, Alvarez received ashes in a bag labeled "Francisco Carro," but on August 3, Alvarez learned that her father had in fact not been cremated. His body was still in storage at Van Orsdel because Funeraria Latina had not provided the medical examiner's cremation authorization. Carro's corpse was finally cremated August 10, yet the ashes were not delivered to Alvarez until October 3. Alvarez complained to the Florida Department of Business & Professional Regulation (DBPR), which found Alkhalifa had violated a state statute prohibiting fraud, deceit, negligence, incompetency, or misconduct in the practice of funeral establishment operation. He agreed to pay a $1,346 fine and received a reprimand.
Nonetheless, capitalizing on his reputation as the poor-man's undertaker, Alkhalifa opened three more funeral homes in the '90s: One Price Funerals, Funeraria Cubana, and Funeraria la Católica. In 2000, he donated services to some of the Cuban refugees who had perished on the trip that brought Elián González to Miami. He even obtained a license from the U.S. Treasury that allowed him to transport dead relatives to Cuba for burial.
"I've run this business for more than 15 years, and only last year did I make a profit," Alkhalifa says. "I made $58,000 by cutting back. For me, it is not a profit center. I have other investments I can live off. I stay open to make a statement."
Ten years ago, on a Friday morning in late September, a pungent, revolting odor penetrated the warehouse walls of Sunray Seafood in Northwest Miami-Dade. Owner Ray Roelans was used to fishy smells, but this was something so awful, so overpowering that one of his employees vomited. Roelans stepped outside to investigate the source of the grotesque stench. He found it in the parking lot of the neighboring business, Alkhalifa's One Price Funerals.
It was a coffin oozing unnaturally dark-green fluids and baking under the hot Miami sun. Inside was the decomposing body of Rosa Perez, who had perished 11 months earlier. The remains, which were to have been transferred to a new, sealed casket, had been wheeled outside by Frank Streeter, a One Price funeral director. He "basically worked for the roof over his head and a supply of beer," according to a sworn statement given to state investigators by Rene Alonso, another one of Alkhalifa's funeral directors, who had delivered Perez's remains to One Price.
Despite being accustomed to sleeping next to the bodies he embalmed, Streeter found the smell of Perez's remains intolerable. Roelans complained to Streeter to do something with the body, according to a synopsis of a DBPR investigation into Alkhalifa's business practices.
Streeter said he would call Alkhalifa "to take care of it." A few hours later that day, September 29, 2000, the corpse was still in the parking lot, so Roelans called the cops, who found a macabre scene inside One Price.
According to a Miami-Dade Police incident report, "nine [unidentified] bodies were stacked on top of one another on the floor" of the freezer, there was "blood spatter on the walls and on the ceiling," and the "sink appeared to be clogged with body fluids." The report also said, "Alkhalifa allowed these conditions to exist and exposed his employees and other persons to these unsanitary conditions."
That wasn't all. Near the mattress where Streeter slept, cops came across a skull, its eye sockets marked with red and blue ink, impaled on a broomstick. The funeral director claimed it was a gift.
The day after police raided One Price, Alkhalifa traveled to Allen & Shaw Cremation Services in Opa-locka. Co-owned by a bespectacled, lumbering, gray-bearded man named Verl Shaw, Allen & Shaw since 1999 was Alkhalifa's go-to place for cremating dead people. "Rafaiy brought us a body in a sealed air-tray container, which is not uncommon because they brought bodies in and out all the time," Shaw recalls in a soft-spoken old-Florida drawl.
"We logged it in and placed the body in the cooler," he adds. "That was pretty much the last we heard from Rafaiy for a while." The container was marked with the name of a dead man named Romero Gómez, one of the nine bodies stacked in the freezer.
When cops returned five days later, on October 2, they arrested Alkhalifa on three criminal misdemeanor charges for not having a certificate of use and occupancy, doing business without a license, and creating a nuisance injurious to health. (The charges were eventually dropped.) After that, the discount-rate undertaker eluded state investigators' further attempts to question him. According to an investigative synopsis, "The few conversations that have taken place... Alkhalifa either says that he does not remember, that it is the funeral directors' fault... that he was unaware of the problems with One Price Funeral Inc. That unfortunately Streeter is an alcoholic and is in charge of One Price."
On March 9, 2001, Alkhalifa returned to Allen & Shaw demanding that Gómez, the dead man he had left there almost a half-year earlier, be immediately incinerated. Shaw says he and his partner insisted that they open the container to verify the identity of the emaciated, dehydrated corpse in a hospital gown. Initially, Alkhalifa didn't want them to read the deceased's toe tag, Shaw says.
"We found the tag said, 'Rodolfo Aguirre,' which wasn't the name of the body that Rafaiy was trying to get us to cremate," Shaw attests. "My partner, Paul Nowak, also noticed something at the foot of the box, underneath the feet of the deceased."
Shaw claims Alkhalifa tried to push them out of the way but that they pulled out a second body bag. Shaw and Nowak unzipped it and found a human skeleton with no skull that Alkhalifa told them was a man named Victor Pérez. The cremation specialists had Alkhalifa handwrite and sign an affidavit affirming he brought the headless cadaver to their facility. "We didn't cremate anything that night," Shaw says. "We had Rafaiy leave, and I made a phone call to the inspectors."
According to the state investigative synopsis, the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner Department's morgue bureau supervisor, Scott Hanks, took possession of the skeleton March 12. He used DNA testing to match the remains to the skull found next to Streeter's bed.
As far as culpability, Alkhalifa insists he is not responsible for the actions of his funeral directors. "The funeral director cannot make mistakes because his license is on the line and they know that," he says. "So I am not the person that has to oversee. I am just the person buying the beans to make the coffee."
The morning of Saturday, April 17, 2004, Rafael Torres, his sister, and his mother convened inside the main chapel of Funeraria Latina shortly after 9 a.m. But something was wrong. None of their friends or other relatives had shown up. There was something else missing: the casket containing the body of Rafael's father, Juan Rolando Torres.
By 10:45 a.m., the chapel was still empty and the corpse still nowhere in sight. Rafael had had enough.
A day earlier, Rafael had gotten into an argument with Alkhalifa over his mother's decision to have Juan Rolando placed in a mausoleum and not one of Alkhalifa's cemetery plots. In a fit of rage, Alkhalifa had taken Juan Rolando's name off the service signs and had instructed employees to tell relatives and friends that there was no service scheduled for that day, Rafael recalls during a recent interview inside his home's white-tiled living room.
Rafael, a tall, heavyset Cuban-American, says he confronted Alkhalifa and demanded a refund of his $2,200 and Juan Rolando's corpse. "You're not getting shit from me," Alkhalifa allegedly replied.
When two Miami Police officers arrived, Alkhalifa agreed to produce Juan Rolando. Shortly before 1 p.m., almost four hours after the service was scheduled to begin, Alkhalifa wheeled into the chapel a casket that was dripping a clear liquid onto the floor. Rafael's sister, Vivian, followed him. She peeked into the open coffin to see her father's naked body covered in blood. While Alkhalifa stood by, Vivian wiped the blood with towels and blankets provided by funeral home employees.
"She even put cotton in his nostrils to stop the blood from gushing out," Rafael remembers. "The body was not even cold, and he had stuffed it in almost sideways into the casket."
Rafael and his sister decided to leave the casket closed during the 45-minute service because their father was such a gruesome mess. As they prepared to leave, Rafael says, Alkhalifa asked his sister to sign a paper that they "were totally satisfied with the service." She promptly refused. Alkhalifa placed Juan Rolando in a hearse. "He said we would never see my father again unless we signed that paper," Rafael recollects. "Our family members had to block him in from leaving. And we had to call the cops again."
Alkhalifa delivered Rafael's father to Graceland South Cemetery's mausoleum, but the family vowed the funeral home owner would pay for his despicable behavior. In July that year, Rafael sent a complaint letter to the DBPR signed by himself, Vivian, and 19 other relatives and friends who had attended the horrific service. The department opened an investigation into the Torreses' claims.
It was one of three administrative probes into Alkhalifa's business practices, including the One Price debacle involving the nine bodies, conducted between 2002 and 2005. State investigators found probable cause that Alkhalifa violated Florida statutes relating to the transportation, identification, and handling of dead human bodies. What's more, the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office in 2003 charged Alkhalifa with one count each of grand theft and organized fraud. He was accused of looting $500,000 from Florida's pre-need trust fund, which allows low-income families to finance loved ones' funerals with a down payment and monthly installments.
According to Alkhalifa, a former employee had opened a separate bank account to deposit customers' checks. "Instead of putting the money in a trust account, it went to him," Alkhalifa explains. "Since it was my business license, the state came after me."
On January 3, 2005, Alkhalifa pleaded no contest and received a withhold adjudication on the grand theft charge on the condition he pay $150,000 back to the funeral trust fund and $60,000 for investigative costs. He also gave up his funeral director's license and received ten years' probation. "They really took me to the cleaners," Alkhalifa grouses.
Still, the administrative complaints — including the Torreses' — against him were dismissed as part of his plea deal. And Alkhalifa was able to stay in business.
Juan Rolando's children aren't finished with the funeral home director. They have a lawsuit pending against him. Rafael Torres, whose home is on NW 37th Avenue, just five minutes from Funeraria Latina Nacional, says Alkhalifa sickens him. "A lot of Cubans don't know how bad he has treated people," Rafael says. "I want to see his business closed down. I don't think it's right that he is still in business."
Alkhalifa notes that Juan Rolando's children recently settled for $2,200 — the amount they had paid him. He complains he ended up spending $10,000 to $12,000 defending himself for four years against their lawsuit. "They got a direct burial for what they paid," Alkhalifa says. "That means no embalming or any other preparation is done. And the father was 350 pounds. That is why he couldn't fit in the casket."
When Estelle Vega passed away April 25, 2005, her nephew, Jorge Porter, made arrangements with Alkhalifa to cremate her. About a month later, on May 23, Maria Alvarez, an employee in charge of Alkhalifa's funeral monument store, phoned Porter to pick up his aunt's ashes. When he arrived at the funeral home the following day, Porter was shocked to find that Alvarez had already released the ashes to a man claiming to be Vega's grandson. The stranger had provided an expired alien registration card with the name Giovanny Parra. Porter hired a lawyer, who soon learned that the real Parra had died March 5, 1994.
Alkhalifa maintains that Alvarez followed proper procedures and that Giovanny Parra identified himself as Vega's grandson. "He is next of kin as far as we are concerned," he says. "For somebody to come and claim ashes that [are] not theirs is very, very unusual." But according to Porter's lawsuit, Parra is not related to Vega.
Alkhalifa had no procedure to protect the ashes of dead people in his care, according to Albert Diamond, Funeraria Latina's former compliance officer and disbarred attorney, in a November 11, 2009 deposition. The ashes "were all over the place," Diamond said, adding that when Vega's family hired a lawyer, Alkhalifa's strategy was to "delay it as much as we can, and it will go away."
When Diamond tried to investigate what happened to Vega's ashes, Alvarez would not let him inside the monument store, and Alkhalifa ran interference for her, Diamond said. "Rafaiy did attempt on many occasions to come between me and Ms. Alvarez," he testified. "I never got to Ms. Alvarez alone."
Tinted windows soften the warm sunlight streaming into attorney Don Russo's second-floor offices at 7990 Bird Rd. in West Miami-Dade. It's January 11, 2010, a little more than three years after the body of Haitian Marcos Mustelier was delivered to the family of Yetsiyel Muñoz in Cuba. Inside a conference room, Russo quizzes a former Funeraria Latina driver during a 30-minute deposition.
Gabriel Bello claims his former boss was responsible for mixing up the bodies. Just days after Muñoz committed suicide October 6, 2006, by jumping off a building in Hialeah, Bello picked up the young man's body from the medical examiner's office, he testifies. The body was then embalmed and repaired for viewing. "But no one from the family wanted to see him because his head was smashed, his head was actually disfigured," Bello says. "However, the dad did see him."
Bello explains that after the viewing, Alkhalifa instructed him to transport Muñoz to the freezer inside a crematorium owned by Texas-based funeral and cremations company Gold Coast Crematory, where the body would stay on ice until it could be shipped to Cuba. Bello testifies he also picked up Mustelier's body at Jackson Memorial Hospital and delivered it to the same freezer. Mustelier was slated for cremation.
"Yetsiyel was not supposed to go to the crematorium because he was a ship-out to Cuba," Bello says. "But Alkhalifa had a very bad divorce from his wife," and she got to keep the funeral home with the freezer, the ex-driver adds.
"Since he couldn't store the bodies, he naively thought that he would put the bodies in the crematorium just like any other body stored there," Bello says. "But he wouldn't tell the people at the crematorium that those bodies were ship-outs."
According to Bello, Alkhalifa planned to tell the crematorium's staff that the deceased's families had changed their minds and wanted to bury their loved ones instead. But apparently, Muñoz had been tagged with Mustelier's name. When the order came to incinerate Mustelier, the crematorium reduced Muñoz's body to ashes instead. The mistake was Alkhalifa's fault, Bello asserts. "Supposedly, these bodies that were ship-outs were not supposed to be there."
Alkhalifa did not discover the mistake until after the wrong ashes were delivered to Mustelier's family. "When we got the permit to take Yetsiyel to Cuba, I went to get him out of the freezer," Bello says. "What I found in the freezer was Mustelier."
Upon learning about the horrible mixup, Alkhalifa decided to ship Mustelier's body inside a coffin to the Muñoz family in Cuba, Bello testifies. "It occurred to [Alkhalifa] to send a black guy to Cuba because supposedly [Yetsiyel] was not going to be viewed by his family because his face had been smashed." Alkhalifa is "the one who makes the decisions, and anything that you do at the funeral home, you have to run it by him first," Bello says.
Shortly after the wrong body was purposely sent to Cuba, Bello says, Alkhalifa fired him when he tried to collect $700 in unpaid wages. "I said to him: 'If you don't pay me my money, I'm going to call the police on you right now,'" Bello recalls. "I worked with him for almost eight years with very bad pay. We've had quite a few arguments over the payment for the $18,000 he owes me from the labor department."
He has seen Alkhalifa employ all kinds of dirty parlor-room trickery to avoid paying anyone, Bello testifies. "He will, for example, use a cleaning lady for two weeks, and then when it comes time to pay that cleaning lady, he already has others waiting in line to replace her."
Alkhalifa is so cheap, Bello claims, that when he closes the chapel doors at night after a viewing, "the flowers stay inside and they recycle them."
The morning of Tuesday, August 10, Alkhalifa rushes from Funeraria Latina's rain-soaked parking lot into the reception area. Dressed in a white shirt with purple checks, a purple and red print tie, and a navy blue suit with a vibrant red rosebud pinned to the lapel, Alkhalifa takes a seat next to two Hispanic ladies who have been waiting for him. The older of the women has just lost her husband, and her daughter is there to help make funeral arrangements. The pair listens raptly as Alkhalifa explains how he will charge them $5,600 for everything, from the casket to the embalming and dressing of the body to the hearse and limo to the cemetery plot. Then comes the kicker.
"I can get you the plot next to your husband for another $3,200," Alkhalifa pitches. "Right now, you go to the cemetery and they will sell it to you for $3,995. They will also charge you 9 percent annual interest if you finance it."
The daughter says her father had life insurance, so money is not really an issue, but her mother is not ready to put money down on her grave. "You know funeral homes love it when you say it's not about the money," Alkhalifa tells them. "Down the road, she may need what she ends up saving if she gets the plot from me."
They agree to go with him to the cemetery to see the plots.
Alkhalifa excuses himself to meet with a reporter to answer questions about the lawsuits and complaints against him. He quickly paces toward his office and shakes hands with two more potential clients before he closes the door behind him. The phone rings. He picks up the receiver. It's someone asking about prices. Alkhalifa launches into his spiel: "I will do it all for $5,600. You will not find anyone who can beat that."
After a couple of minutes, he hangs up and turns his attention to the reporter. "Look, anybody can sue anybody," he rationalizes. "Everybody sues funeral homes because they think funeral homes have money, and it is easy to sue funeral homes because funeral homes are the only exception to the tort reform law."
Funeral homes are sued with impunity, Alkhalifa adds. "People think they can get money by crying in court," he says. "They say they can't work because they are so distraught. Juries buy this BS."
Regarding Bello's deposition, Alkhalifa dismisses him as nothing more than a disgruntled ex-employee who was not truthful about how the bodies of Yetsiyel Muñoz and Marcos Mustelier were mixed up. The funeral home owner insists he had a business arrangement with Gold Coast Crematory to store bodies there. Alkhalifa says Muñoz's remains were in a box that was clearly marked "stored for voyage to Cuba." He adds that it was an employee at Gold Coast who "didn't bother to look at the toe tag," which would have confirmed it was Muñoz. "They gave us Mustelier instead," Alkhalifa says. "Really, we didn't mess up, but you have to take some responsibility. We are working to get a settlement from Gold Coast."
Despite the litigation and accusations against him, he still pulls in customers, Alkhalifa boasts. "If this funeral home was so bad, I wouldn't have people knocking on my door," he says. "I've already signed seven new clients this morning. I don't turn anyone away. If all you have is $2,000, I'll take it. I won't let you walk out."
If anything, he is a victim of his own success, Alkhalifa says. "When I bought a Bentley, I couldn't enjoy it," he grouses. "When you have money in this city, everyone wants a piece of it."
Alkhalifa gets up from his chair. He adjusts the rosebud on his lapel so that it sticks straight up. He walks into the reception area, where he greets a new round of potential customers.
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