The morning of Christmas Eve 2014, a home health-care worker arrived for his shift to care for an 82-year-old Hallandale Beach woman. But when he entered the condo, he found Florence Wagner dead in her bed.
Hallandale Beach Police say their efforts to find the woman's next-of-kin were unsuccessful: The caretaker said Wagner hadn't listed any relatives, and the home health-care agency had only the name of a neighbor whose number ending up being disconnected. Wagner's doctor said the octogenarian hadn't written an emergency contact in her paperwork, and a Bank of America manager said there was no secondary account-holder or beneficiary for Wagner's safe deposit box.
With no further information or suspicion of foul play, police closed the case. Wagner's relatives now say they didn't learn of her death until three months later — after the city had cremated her body. Last week, exactly three years after Wagner's death, her estate sued the City of Hallandale Beach and its police department for negligence.
"She was Catholic, and she didn't want to be cremated because of religious beliefs," says the family's attorney, Sean Sheppard. "She had a tomb, a crypt in Hallandale."
According to the family's complaint, police left crime scene tape in front of Wagner's apartment for months after her death. When someone from the condo association finally got permission to take the tape down and clean out the condo in March 2015, that person entered the unit and quickly found an address book with phone numbers for Wagner's relatives. It was only then that her family learned she had died.
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Sheppard says Wagner's niece, Carolann Sharkey, immediately called Hallandale Beach Police to learn more. When she asked for information about her aunt's remains, she was told Wagner had been cremated and that her ashes were scheduled to be thrown into the ocean. (Sheppard says Sharkey was able to assert her right as the personal representative of her aunt's estate before the ashes were disposed of.)
Though paperwork from a Catholic cemetery was found inside the condo, a police report says Wagner was cremated because she still owed $5,700 on the contract for her mausoleum.
To Wagner's family, that's unacceptable. Sheppard says if police had done a thorough job, her relatives would have been able to give her the proper burial she'd always wanted. "Had they just done a preliminary, cursory review of what was inside the place, they probably could have found a phone number or name," he says. "I think it just fell through the cracks."
Neither the city attorney's office nor a police department spokesperson responded to New Times' requests for comment on the allegations.