William Ragland was murdered for $500 and some heroin on July 11, 2002. A lone gunman shot him four times at close range, and William was dead within minutes.
At the time of his murder, the DEA had pegged Ragland as a crack dealer at the John Adams projects in the Bronx. But, says his older brother Tyrone, he was trying to get out of that life.
"We were on our way up," Tyrone remembers. The brothers were planning to buy a multi-family house in Queens, where they wanted to raise their children away from the guns and drugs in their Bronx neighborhood. But it was too late. As Tyrone looked at houses with his wife, a rival dealer in William's neighborhood was counting out bills to pay for the contract killing.
William's murder was a brutal blow to his family, but his death left them unprepared what happened next. Despite the physical trauma to William's body, the Ragland family had every reason to believe that his corpse would be pre-pared in a way to allow for an open-casket funeral. But when Tyrone went to view his brother's body before the service he couldn't believe what he saw.
About a third of William's face had been chewed off by rats. "Chunks of his flesh, bites of him was taken of his neck, his arms, his forehead," Tyrone says. "They pulled the sheet down to his shoulders and that's all my stomach could take."
Just a couple months before his death, William had stood next to Tyrone as his best man. Photographs of the day show William wearing a beaming smile and a handsome white tuxedo. The photos of the damaged corpse bear almost no resemblance to these earlier pictures. William's nose is completely gone; only a bit of white cartilage is visible in a large hole in the middle of his face. White patches of chewed flesh cover his face, forehead, and parts of his neck.
Soon after the traumatic viewing, the Ragland family sued Riverton Funeral Home, as well as the morgue and another funeral home that handled William's body. While it is still unclear exactly where the damage occurred, it certainly wasn't the first time that funeral services had gone nightmarishly awry at Riverton.
A Voice investigation has uncovered a history of missing and damaged corpses at the family-run funeral home, which has been sued for negligence seven times since 1991. The accusations against the home read like a worst-case-scenario list of what could go wrong: missing cremated remains, rotting flesh, stinking corpses, crawling maggots.
Riverton's retired funeral director, 86-year-old Mary Davis Galloway, may be dragged into court to answer questions about her role in the care of the deceased William Ragland.
The Ragland case has resurrected old memories for many Riverton clients, prompting several families to renew their call for Galloway to be held accountable. It has also reopened old questionslike how Riverton managed to stay in business for nearly 50 years despite a reckless history of violating state regulations, ignoring court orders, and losing dead bodies.
Harlem Hospital is surrounded by a half-dozen funeral homes that feed off it. They wait for death to happen, for bodies to be moved from the emergency room to the morgue, and then finally to their porcelain and stainless steel tables for embalming.
The Strivers Row Funeral Home is half a block from the hospital, across the street from a dingy but much used basketball court. Unlike some of its nearby competitors that have red or green canopies, this home is advertised only by a modest black-and-white sign. It is the latest incarnation of an old family business, operating now under a new generation, a new name, and a new business certificate.
The storefront originally opened its doors in 1957 as the Riverton Funeral Home, a joint venture of siblings Mary Davis Galloway, Viola Chisholm, and Percy and Timothy Davis. They came to the business at a time when funeral directing was a highly respected field, second only to the clergy in the African-American community. It was also one of the more profitable professions open to black familiesin 1977, Black Enterprise magazine called funeral directors the "most viable businessmen within the black community."
As years went by, regulation of the funeral-service industry increased. Rules were passed to protect consumers from being gouged by unscrupulous funeral directors. The Department of Health created the Bureau of Funeral Directing, which required funeral directors to complete a certification program, one-year residency, and national board exam.
William Ragland didn't deserve to be treated this way after death.
At some point in Riverton's long history, Mary and Percy teamed up and left Timothy to handle his own separate business, the Timothy A. Davis Funeral Home. (Chisholm dropped out of the business.) Both entitiesRiverton and Davis funeral homescontinued to operate from the same location, causing confusion for clients, but providing a convenient way for the siblings to pass the buck when complaints were lodged. One former client remembered Galloway claiming that neither she nor Riverton were responsible for a mix-up with cremated remains because her brother was the one who handled itdespite the fact that all the paperwork displayed a "Riverton Funeral Home" logo. But this was only a minor foreshadowing of what was to come.
The trouble began in earnest in the late 1980s. After more than 30 years in business, it seemed that the Davis siblings were getting sloppy. It started out with the death of John Malloy in 1989, the first of seven siblings to die. His sister Martha Freeman had his body delivered to the Riverton Funeral Home for a wake in New York before holding a second service for family members in North Carolina. When a couple of the siblings arrived at Riverton for the viewing, Freeman says that Galloway locked the door, turned off the lights, and refused to let them in. "She closed everything down, and she told them to leave, leave, leave!" Freeman recalls. "Then she shipped the body down South real fast."
When Malloy's body arrived at the North Carolina funeral home, the mortician there wrote that "the body had a terrible odor; his entire body was leaking body fluid, and in an advanced stage of decomposition." In addition, Freeman says that there were maggots coming out of her dead brother's nose and mouth.
"My oldest brother saw the body and got sick. He was never the same after that," Freeman remembers. The service was closed-casket, hiding the shoddy work from the rest of the family, but even still, "the body was smelling bad," Freeman says. "It was embarrassing and humiliating." Freeman sued for breach of contract, but says she eventually let the case drop when her lawyer left his law firm.
Things only got worse as the years went by. Olen Jones, a father of two, died on February 15, 1998. Soon after the funeral, Jones's wife and children sued for $15 million. They accused Riverton of breaking the dead man's leg to force him into a casket that was too small. The legal complaint states that they were "shocked to discover the decedent's body had been mutilated and forced into a casket, which was obviously inappropriate for the matter at hand."
In response to the complaint, Galloway wrote a rambling and shocking letter:
"I will take her [Jones's wife] to court for this statement, which I am going to sue her for millions of dollars. I believe she cremated her husband to try and get money. If the body was mutilated, where are the pieces that I took off? She is going to have to get the pieces that were cut off . . . . I can't wait to go to court to hear about the missing pieces of the deceased. She should not have cremated the body without taking pictures of the missing pieces. . . . "
That case eventually settled out of court, but Galloway's letter, dated September 3, 1998, set a tone that would stick; for the next 10 years, Galloway repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, accused her complaining clients of lying, and refused to appear in court to defend herself or her business.
Another pattern emerged a few years later: According to several clients who spoke to the Voice independently, as well as a neighboring funeral home, Riverton occasionally claimed bodies from city morgues without permission from the families. The hope was that the family would simply agree to use Riverton's services rather than deal with rerouting the body to another home. Not everyone cooperated.
Eugene Moore died of a heart attack alone in his Bronx apartment in May 2001. When his daughter, Michelle Martin, couldn't reach him on the phone, she panicked. She was living in Georgia at the time, so she called the NYPD, who broke down the door and discovered him.
After calling Riverton about pricing, Martin ultimately contracted with another nearby funeral home. However, when that funeral home went to the Jacobi Medical Center morgue to retrieve Moore's body, it was gone. Riverton had taken it.
"[Galloway] did everything on her own without me signing any paperwork," says Martin. "I never even met her!" By the time the second funeral home received the body from Riverton, it was already badly decomposed, Martin says. The open-casket funeral that the family wanted was no longer possible. Martin sued Riverton for negligence and eventually won $50,175 in damages for pain and suffering. Galloway wrote an angry letter threatening to counter-sue for $50 million, accusing Martin of telling a "wrongful story," but that's the last Martin ever heard from Galloway or Riverton. Not a penny of the awarded amount was ever paid.
Over the next several years, pancreatic cancer, hypertension, and heart disease brought Riverton three more clients that resulted in lawsuits. The families successfully sued Riverton for mishandling the cremated remains of their deceased family members: In a 2004 judgment, the home was ordered to pay $225,000 to one family after giving them the runaround and delivering an urn full of sand. Then, in 2005, two Harlem sisters won a judgment of $300,000 plus a refund of the $1,545 funeral service after Riverton told them the remains of their late father had been lost. Just last year, another negligence lawsuit resulted in a $140,815 award to a woman who never received the remains of her late husband, to whom she had been married for 46 years. Not one plaintiff in these cases has been paid the damages they were awarded.
Today, the only lawsuit still pending against Riverton is the Ragland rat case.
After William's death, his older brother, Tyrone, initially contacted Riverton. As she had done in the past, Galloway picked up the body before actually getting permission from Tyrone or any other family member. However, the Raglands actually contracted the Florence E. Browne Funeral Home, a couple blocks away. The stories diverge here.
Galloway has said she handed the body over to the Florence E. Browne Funeral Home in good condition. However, Browne's funeral director, Patricia Morris, said that the body was already mutilated when her staff picked it up from Riverton. Either way, the results weren't pretty.
Tyrone and his siblings filed suit against the morgue and both Riverton and Florence E. Browne funeral homes. Edward Spark, the Ragland family's attorney who has handled several similar lawsuits, emphasizes that it's still too early to determine if Riverton is the true culprit, or if the damage occurred at the Browne funeral home.
"Everybody says they didn't do it, it wasn't them, but somewhere it happened," Tyrone says. "This was not a scratch on his face. . . . this was chunks and chunks, you know."
"I don't have nothing to do with that. I don't re-member anything about anything," Galloway says when reached via phone at her East Harlem apartment.
Galloway claims ignorance and senility when asked about the Ragland case. Asked about the multitude of other complaints about Riverton, Galloway blames her bad memory: "I might tell you one thing today and another tomorrow." Her M.O. throughout has been to claim ignorance, plead poverty, and ignore the mounting penalties.
Throughout the string of negligence lawsuits, Riverton had no insurance to cover legal costs incurred or the whopping $717,000 in damages it now owes in various judgments. The few times that Galloway did respond to complaints, she usually represented herself. Galloway often told complaining clients and their lawyers that she had no money and no assets. After her brothers died, in 2004 and 2006, she claimed no responsibility for the lawsuits against Riverton that named them, reportedly telling one lawyer that "Percy's dead, so quit sending papers to me!"
Over the years, the Department of Health bumped up against Riverton a number of times. According to DOH records, Riverton was fined $6,800 from 1972 to 1992 for infractions like overcharging clients, billing clients for services they had not requested, and failing to register the funeral home. At one point, the department even suspended Percy Davis's funeral director's license and put him on an 18-month probation.
A more recent DOH investigation was prompted when a family could not get a straight answer from Riverton about the cremation of a relative. Apparently, Riverton had never delivered the deceased to Oxford Hills Crematory, where it had told the family the final disposition would take place. After the DOH investigator called, the crematory director, Tommy Flynn, went to Riverton and found the body in ques tion fully embalmed and dressed, still sitting in the basement weeks after the funeral. "I stopped working with Riverton after that," Flynn said.
But it wasn't until 2003 that the home received its most damning condemnation.
An August 20, 2003 letter from Deborah Orecki, head of DOH's Bureau of Funeral Directing, commanded Riverton Funeral Home to "cease and desist" because its necessary certification had expired. (Funeral homes must be certified by the DOH and funeral directors must hold a DOH license that comes up for renewal every two years.)
"As of the date of this letter, Riverton Funeral Home shall not accept any human remains for funeral services," Orecki commanded. The letter said that the DOH had directed local cemeteries and crematoriums not to do business with Riverton Funeral Home. The end, it seemed, had come. Galloway claims that the funeral home was shuttered in 2003, that she retired, and that was the end of it. But the funeral home would not die so easily.
Less than a week after the DOH shut down Riverton, Riverton Funeral Home II opened its doors. In an apparent attempt to bypass the mounting problems of the original business, the Davis siblings added a roman numeral onto the name and filed with the state as a new business. Even though it was, in theory, a totally new business venture, Riverton II operated in the same building and continued to be run by the same peopleTimothy Davis and Mary Davis Galloway, according to their nephew. Only this time, the business operated without a valid funeral director's certificate, a blatant and serious violation of state regulations.
At the time, several lawsuits against the original Riverton were still making their way through the system, and the plaintiffs were being told they would never collect the damages awarded to them because Riverton had closed.
Although the courts and the state couldn't manage to put the Davis siblings out of business, Riverton II finally came to an end when Timothy Davis died on February 3, 2006. But Harlem still hasn't seen the last of the Davis clan. Just a month after Davis's death, a nephew and former employee of Riverton reopened the business under a different name, a new business certificate, and his own DOH funeral director's license.
The new operationStrivers Row Funeral Homegives a nod to the neighborhood's historic row houses that were a symbol of African-American success during Harlem's heyday. The new owner, 27-year-old Marcus McLean, is too young to remember that heyday. Just as his aunt claims senility, McLean claims youth.
McLean was in college during the time of the Ragland fiasco. He says that he has "heard something about that."
When asked about one of the cases of a man's missing remains, McLean's eyes widen. "I may have him in my basement!"
Inside the refurbished funeral home, the macabre events that led to the Ragland lawsuit seem hard to imagine now. New maroon carpet covers the chapel floor. McLean sits behind a stately wooden desk that has been polished to a sheen. The business of death requires formal attire, and so McLean wears a black jacket and tie. McLean says business is slow, but with an average payment of $3,000 to $6,000 per funeral service, he is getting by. He suspects that Riverton's reputation is keeping him from being more successful at his new venture.
The old regime still lingers. Although McLean said Galloway is not employed by him and does not receive any income from Strivers Row Funeral Home, he says she still comes by in the evenings once in a while. Her friends and relatives use the front lobby of this sober establishment as a senior center, joking, snacking, and gossiping. They are the equivalent of teenagers hanging out on the stoop, only with canes and orthopedic shoes. McLean pauses at the sound of two elderly women cackling outside his office and lets out a tortured sigh.
The senior contingent out front are a reminder of the old place, and the fact that McLean cannot get away from either his family or the scores of angry people they left in their wake. Galloway, individually, and Riverton I and Riverton II still owe hundreds of thousands in damages to the families scarred by traumatic funerals, missing remains, and damaged corpses.
When he opened Strivers Row Funeral Home, "it was a mess," McLean admits. The cremated remains of 153 people were stored in the basement, never having been inventoried. Some have been there for up to eight years. McLean did find a box of remains labled with the name of the father of two sisters who sued. However, after four years of conflicting stories about what happened to their father's remains, they asked, "How do we even know that's our dad? I don't believe it."
The basement wasn't the only thing that was left in disarray.
When Timothy Davis died, he left many clients wondering what happened to the money they shelled out for their pre-paid funeral arrangements. According to state regulations, when a funeral home goes out of business, it must close out all pre-paid accounts either by giving refunds or transferring the accounts to another funeral home.
"That was not the case," McLean says. The money for the pre-paid arrangements simply disappeared. McLean says he has no idea where it could be, giving another silent shake of his head. He has already paid about $7,000 in legal fees and gone to small claims court four times to dispute charges that he is responsible for those accounts. Another court appearance is on the docket this month. "It's like going to McDonald's to ask for a refund from KFC," he says, exasperated. "I have no legal responsibility to it."
A crowd of former clients and lawyers are arguing that both McLean and Galloway should be held accountable: "We are going to claim, essentially, that it was a fraudulent transfer, which means [the Davis siblings] turned over everything to avoid payment of prior debts," says Edward Sivin, an attorney on one of the missing remains cases.
Galloway is also still in hot water. After being told that the funeral home went out of business, at least two families who are waiting to collect are going after Galloway's personal assets. Already a collections specialist is investigating Galloway to see what, if anything, can be squeezed out of her. Although she's been told that she might end up handcuffed in court, Galloway says she doesn't want to think about it.
"The little time I got to live, I don't want to wreck my brain with those things."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.
- Feeling the Yern: Why One Millennial Woman Would Rather Go to Hell Than Vote for Hillary
Thu., Feb. 11, 7:00pm
Fri., Feb. 12, 7:00pm
Fri., Feb. 12, 7:00pm
Sun., Feb. 14, 12:30pm
- Rightbloggers Pivot to Rubio Before New Hampshire Because...It's His Turn?
- Breaking: Crane Collapses in Lower Manhattan, One Reported Dead