Funeral homes of horror

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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.

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Francisco Alvarado was born in Nicaragua and grew up in Miami, giving him unique insight into the Magic City and all its dark corners. An investigative reporter with a knack for uncovering corruption, Alvarado made his bones as a staff writer at Miami New Times and remains in dogged pursuit of the next juicy story.
Robert Dunlap

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