ATLANTIC BEACH, Fla. – The I-TEAM has discovered five bodies -- not just one -- were left inside a refrigerator at First Coast Funeral Home in Atlantic Beach so long they began to rot. That refrigerator had apparently not been working correctly for months.
This is new information, since we had only been told about one body. A state inspector first discovered Burton Acker's maggot-infested corpse last July during a surprise inspection at the funeral home. That inspection happened after repeated questions by the I-TEAM about why the state had not done more to help dozens of families who accused the owner and manager of the business of disgracing the dead.
Now, we have learned what happened to Acker's remains, was not an isolated case. When the inspector discovered Acker's body in July, he noted in his report that the thermostat was broken. The refrigerator had apparently not been cooling correctly since January.
We have uncovered information in state documents from a local crematory employee who told the same inspector who discovered Acker's body, that he had received more decomposed bodies from the same funeral home.
At the time, the business was owned by Amanda Rayan. Her husband Nader "John" Rayan was the manager.
We have now confirmed with four other families, that the same inspector with the Division of Funeral, Cemetery and Consumer Services, called them to notify them of the condition of their loved ones' remains prior to their cremation.
February: Priscillia Dos Santos
"It's heart breaking. She didn't deserve that," said Joe Dos Santos referring to his mother, Priscilla, who died in February. Dos Santos says he paid John and Amanda Rayan $1,495 to cremate his mother, and then mail her cremains to him in North Carolina.
"John and Amanda sat right in front of myself, my aunt, and cousin and literally lied to us, right to our faces. We trusted them with our loved one's remains and this is what happens?"
Dos Santos says the Rayans gave him nothing but excuses as to why it was taking so long to receive his mother's ashes, which took six weeks to be delivered.
A cremation should not take more than a week -- 10 days at the most, according to information we have gathered from experts in the crematory business. Crematories are not allowed to perform the service without a signed death certificate from a doctor and approval from the Medical Examiner's office -- both of which are services funeral homes are supposed to provide to families as part of their fee.
February: Atlantic Beach man
The remains of an Atlantic Beach man, who also died in February -- were also left so long in the same refrigerator -- his corpse had started to decompose, too.
The I-TEAM spoke to his daughter on the phone. She is still too upset, and does not want her name or her father's name made public. But, she confirms a state inspector notified her about the alleged mishandling of her father's remains. She also tells the I-TEAM she waited about a month to receive her father's ashes from First Coast Funeral home.
March: Karen Hawkins
The Division of Funeral, Cemetery and Consumer Services confirms Karen Hawkins' body was also allowed to sit too long in the refrigerator at the funeral home after she died in March.
Her best friend, Marie Reeder, told the I-TEAM in May, she repeatedly called John Rayan about why it was taking so long to receive Hawkins' ashes. After waiting more than a month, Reeder filed a complaint with the state, but says it took two weeks for her case to be assigned to an inspector and then another two weeks before the inspector called her.
It took two months for Karen Hawkins' remains to be cremated, even though Hawkins had paid the Rayans months in advance for the service.
May: Ponte Vedra Beach man
Tina D'Allesandro's father's remains also decomposed inside the refrigerator at First Coast Funeral Home.
Her family asked us not to identify him by name. He died in May. D'Allessandro says John Rayan never delivered his ashes on the day he promised, and no one answered the door at the funeral home when he agreed to meet her to turn over her father's cremains.
The cremation was finally completed -- only after another funeral home called the state Division of Funeral, Cemetery and Consumer Services to alert an inspector about the problem.
By the time the state inspector discovered Burton Acker's maggot-infested body on July 1st, 2016, First Coast Funeral home and its sister company, Beaches Memorial Park, had been reprimanded and fined nearly a dozen times by the state office that regulates these kinds of businesses -- the Division of Funeral, Cemetery and Consumer Services.
According to state documents, Amanda Rayan was fined in 2011 for failing to make deposits to preneed trust accounts, failing to provide notice of costs to consumers about fees for funeral services and burial rights, failing to keep records of every burial in the cemetery and failing to have the purchaser initial and date changes made on contracts.
The following year, she was fined again for negligence and misappropriation of trust fund money. Her license to sell preneed contracts was revoked for three years. But, her husband was granted a license allowing the funeral home and cemetery to continue to sell contracts to new customers.
According to state documents, Amanda Rayan was reprimanded again, after a state inspector discovered someone forged the name of a funeral director -- working somewhere else -- on documents listing First Coast Funeral Home's acting funeral director.
Every funeral home is required by Florida law to have an acting funeral director in charge on duty.
The licenses for First Coast Funeral Home and Beaches Memorial Park expired nine times between 2009 and 2016.
Even though the state inspector in charge of monitoring the businesses knew the cemetery's license expired in December 2015, no action was taken against the owner or manager -- even when the I-TEAM pointed it out in May.
In October 2015, Don Mason filed a complaint with the DFCC Services accusing John Rayan of failing to provide the services he paid for when his son Kevin died.
Among the complaints, John Rayan led Mason to believe he was a funeral director, even though Rayan did not have a license to perform those services. His son's ashes were not ready on the day of his memorial service and memorial cards for the service were not provided as ordered. Mason tells the I-TEAM, he was not contacted by the state inspector about his complaint until December -- two months after he filed it.
Despite all these prior violations, including two dozen consumer complaints filed against Amanda Rayan's businesses, the I-TEAM has found no evidence to suggest anyone from the state had placed First Coast Funeral Home, Beaches Memorial Park or its owner and manager on any kind of watch list.
A state inspector made an unannounced visit to First Coast Funeral Home and found no one at the office. The inspector was also unable to reach someone on the phone. She left.
According to state documents, Amanda Rayan was allowed to reschedule that inspection for nearly two months. By the time the state inspector was able to get inside the funeral home, three badly decomposed bodies had already been cremated.
I-TEAM receives more than 70 complaints about Amanda Rayan's businesses
The board that regulates cemeteries and funeral homes in the state told us that board members were not aware of all the consumer complaints that had been filed against First Coast Funeral Home and Beaches Memorial Park. The board says it relies on administrators with the Division of Funeral, Cemetery and Consumer Services to investigate any and all complaints, and then bring them to its attention for discipline.
The I-TEAM has made several requests to interview the state of Florida's Chief Financial Officer, Jeff Atwater, about why the state waited so long before taking serious action against Amanda and Nader "John" Rayan. Our interview was not granted. When we were given an opportunity to interview the Director of the Division of Funeral, Cemetery and Consumer Services, Doug Shropshire, he was adamant that his office was swift with its reprimands of Rayan's businesses.
After our I-TEAM investigations aired in May and June, the state ordered the funeral home to stop all business. Amanda and "John" Rayans' licenses were revoked. The funeral home and cemetery were sold.
John Rayan was arrested in July on 15 counts of grand theft involving grave markers that were paid for, but not delivered. Amanda Rayan was arrested in September. She is facing 47 felony counts, accusing her of forging death certificates and schemes to defraud.