ORLANDO, Fla. — Orlando police officials and state regulators confirmed they’re investigating a local funeral home after a family complained its owner was acting as a funeral director, despite not having a license.
Officers were called to the Celebrations of Life Mortuary on Clarcona-Ocoee Road Monday afternoon after family members of Gamaine Patrick Brown, the 19-year-old shot and killed outside a football game Saturday evening, said they were having trouble reclaiming the body and moving it to a new facility.
Brown’s family said they initially chose to work with the mortuary after the facility’s owner called them Sunday. They weren’t sure how the owner, Tekeavias Byrd, got Brown’s father’s phone number, attributing the lapse in their memories to the fog and chaos that happened after learning their son and brother had died.
The father, George Brown, said Byrd arranged a meeting at the family’s house.
“He just gave us a list of the funeral services that he gave us packages on how to exactly how exactly the funeral would go,” Sierra Brown, daughter of George and sister of Gamaine, recalled, adding that Byrd had them sign a form releasing the body to his mortuary.
However, Byrd is not a licensed funeral director. People in the funeral industry said it’s a violation of state statute for anyone except someone with a license to solicit a family, regardless of if it happens at a hospital, a home or at the business itself.
“The practice of funeral directing shall be construed to consist of the following functions, which may be performed only by a licensed funeral director: Selling or offering to sell funeral services, embalming, cremation, or other services relating to the final disposition of human remains, including the removal of such remains from the state, on an at-need basis,” Section 497 reads in part.
When questioned, Byrd said all the interactions were undertaken by his 84-year-old licensed funeral director, Benjamin Link, whose name is listed on the mortuary’s door and in state licensing records in association with the business.
However, Link denied the claim when reached by phone Wednesday, saying he had retired as of last week and he told Byrd to hire someone else to replace him. Link said he had not met with any families over the weekend and could not remember the last time he had done so.
“Where he needed help, [Byrd] called me and I went to assist him,” Link said.
That was not the family’s only complaint, however. When they arrived to assist the new funeral home in picking up the body, the side of Brown’s head was visible from the sidewalk outside the business.
State statute 497 reads: “All human remains transported or stored must be completely covered,” listing violations as a first-degree misdemeanor.
Family members also accused Byrd of demanding $3,000 to release the body to the new funeral home after having it for only a few hours. He later dropped his request to $300 after OPD officers arrived on scene and agreed it could be paid another day.
Link wasn’t present during that negotiation.
“According to the basic service and according to the general price list for the services that were rendered,” Byrd said, when asked about the fee. He said the price was set by Link.
Multiple funeral industry workers said that’s outside the norm. If there are any fees – which they said are nowhere close to $3,000 – the two funeral homes will communicate and tack the charge on to the final bill.
Byrd said the second funeral home – Pax Villa – never called him, which is why he went to the family. The funeral director for Pax Villa and an assistant within earshot of the phone both strongly denied that accusation, saying they called twice and attempted to fax documents over.
He also lashed out at incoming Orange County Commissioner Mike Scott, who mentored Gamaine Brown and drove to the funeral home Monday to help oversee the transfer of Brown’s body. Byrd said Scott was conspiring against him, while Scott countered that he had merely mentioned to the family that Byrd was unlicensed.
“If you have a proper license to do the business, I have no issue,” Scott said.
Regulators in Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis’ office confirmed they had investigated Celebrations of Life before.
“DFS has received and investigated complaints regarding this funeral home and is currently pursuing additional administrative action,” a spokesperson wrote. “DFS encourages the public to report complaints online at: myfloridacfo.com/division/funeralcemetery/ or by calling 1-800-323-2627.”
Orlando Police Department officials wouldn’t provide any details about their side of the investigation. Family members said they called the department’s fraud unit and had been interviewed by patrol officers following the argument outside the mortuary Monday night.
“I don’t think it’s fair to my kids, what he got going on,” George Brown said.
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