Documents shed light on early stages of investigation at Ryder Funeral Home



Last modified: Tuesday, August 25, 2015

NORTHAMPTON — When state regulators converged on the former Ryder Funeral Home on May 28, 2014, they discovered a funeral home in “utter disarray” whose longtime director was cooperative but came across as a “marginally comprehending casual observer” who was unable to provide even basic information, such as how many bodies were on site, according to state investigatory reports and memorandums obtained by the Gazette.

The documents shed new light on the first 48 hours after local and state officials entered the funeral home at 33 Lamb St. in South Hadley and sought to identify seven decomposing and two embalmed bodies found in various rooms and garages.

Investigators were tipped off to the decomposing bodies by Vincent Govoni, formerly an employee of the Agawam Funeral Home, who had been working as an embalmer for Ryder, records show.

‘Dropped the ball’

In the documents, investigators portray William W. Ryder as a beleaguered funeral director who had been working alone and showing signs of unusual behavior.

“He (Ryder) seemed to have only a marginal understanding of the severity of the situation, or of the potential negative consequences of the presence of state investigators, police detectives, a town official and an ADA (assistant district attorney),” Alan Van Tassel, an investigations supervisor with the state Division of Professional Licensure, wrote in a report. “He seemed anxious to please, and was absolutely cooperative, but was wholly ineffectual in both due to his inability to properly answer questions or to understand expectations.”

Van Tassel traveled to the funeral home from Boston and spent more than six hours with Ryder that day. He wrote that while Ryder did not appear mentally ill or show any signs of intoxication, he appeared underweight and was given to “very rapid movements and disconnected thoughts.”

After Van Tassel introduced himself at the funeral home, Ryder stated that he had a hard time keeping up with his business because he worked alone and that he had “dropped the ball” regarding one deceased person who had been in the funeral home — unrefrigerated — for 23 days, according to Van Tassel’s report.

“I asked Mr. Ryder how many bodies were on site. He stated ‘I’d have to count,’ ” Van Tassel wrote. “I told Mr. Ryder that his answer was totally unacceptable. I said that my understanding is that there are at least eight bodies ... and Mr. Ryder said, ‘OK, OK, then it’s eight.’ ”

The funeral home that day had visits from local and state officials; South Hadley police detectives; Ryder’s family members; other nearby funeral home directors; Assistant Northwestern District Attorney Steven Gagne; a member of the clergy; and two of Ryder’s attorneys, Paul Boudreau and Edward Ryan of South Hadley.

Boudreau relayed to investigators that at different times Ryder had personal issues that had created “insurmountable problems.” He noted that another funeral director had left the business recently and many of Ryder’s support staff who had been with him for two decades or more had also quit, according to documents.

Boudreau had called in Ryder’s sister, Barbara Prickett, who arrived and stayed with her brother and was cooperative, though “clearly distressed by her brother’s condition and the situation,” Van Tassel wrote.

Ryder’s attorneys also called in Jay Czelusniak and his father, Robert Czelusniak, of the Czelusniak Funeral Home in Northampton, who assisted with sorting out and analyzing paperwork as well as viewing the decomposing bodies in the funeral home.

“Although they were reserved, it was evident from their facial expression that they were very disturbed,” Van Tassel wrote in his accounting of what transpired that day.

Rooms in disarray

As he explored the funeral home, Van Tassel went into the basement where there were at least seven distinct passages or rooms that, as he put it, “consisted of jumbled items spanning the imagination.”

He found at least 30 boxes of unclaimed ashes — including the ashes of a woman who had been cremated as far back as 1966.

“I opened every steamer trunk, every suitcase, and every box, many of which had layers of dirt or grime that distorted the original color of items,” he wrote in an investigatory report. “The only room left unexplored was one that appeared to be completely empty, and that had enormous dusty webs that literally formed a ceiling-to-floor curtain in front of me.”

Upstairs, on the first floor, investigators encountered a series of rooms that were “beyond any hope of cohesion” by Ryder and “defied attempts to understand what was where.”

Documents associated with deceased clients were scattered everywhere, in different rooms, on floors, and any surface that could hold piles of paper, according to Van Tassel’s account.

“There was absolutely no rhyme or reason to where anything was,” he wrote.

Investigators found liquor in one funeral home office and a large, open switchblade knife on a desk that they removed as a precaution, though no illicit materials were found during what was described as a thorough search of the home.

South Hadley police detectives searched the second floor of the home where Ryder reported that he sometimes lived. The living quarters were described as being in even greater disarray than the first floor, Detective Trudy Romanovicz told investigators.

First on scene

Robert P. Williams, a state funeral home investigator, was the first authority to enter the funeral home and find the decomposing bodies on the morning of May 28, 2014. While at the funeral home, Williams told Ryder he was not to leave the premises or remove anything — including deceased bodies — until local health officials and other authorities arrived.

Williams left the funeral home briefly that morning to retrieve paperwork in Springfield. By the time he returned, Ryder had accepted two more bodies at the funeral home, according to a memorandum from Williams to the state Board of Registration in Embalming and Funeral Directing. Williams had also called in another Division of Professional Licensure investigator, Matthew T. Runge, to assist him at the funeral home and noted that Ryder frequently disappeared throughout the day despite investigators’ efforts to monitor him.

“At times I would have conversations with him and then at times he would not be able to be found,” Williams wrote to the state board. “There is a residence upstairs of the funeral home. Mr. Ryder went upstairs on several occasions while this investigator was present, and also went to his car many times.”

Runge reported that Ryder did not appear to have an effective record-keeping system and when he questioned Ryder about his deficient paperwork, his conversations with him were brief because he would often “hastily excuse himself” from Runge and Williams.

“On numerous instances, he would retreat to an office, an upstairs living quarter or outside to his vehicle which was parked behind the building,” Runge wrote in his report. “Mr. Ryder did not appear to comprehend or at minimum acknowledge the severity of the situation at hand. His response to basic questions ... appeared to be disjointed and unfocused.”

Runge also reported to the board on May 30 that he had become overwhelmed by the odor of the funeral home and described the areas where bodies were kept to be “extremely disorganized.”

At one point, he had to leave the building.

“After viewing this scene, I excused myself from the building to catch a breath of fresh air,” he wrote in a memorandum to the state board.

An earlier visit

Only nine days earlier, on May 19, Williams had been at the Ryder Funeral Home to inquire about whether a deceased client had been embalmed and who had done the work. The man had been buried in the Evergreen Cemetery in South Hadley on May 14 — but Ryder had forgotten to take the man’s wedding ring off and provide it for his wife, according to state records.

Williams questioned Ryder about the interment and disinterment of the man the day after he was buried in a vault. The town of South Hadley and Evergreen Cemetery had no record of the burial activity or disinterment, according to Williams.

Ryder told Williams that he did not receive permission from the man’s family to embalm him, but said the man had been embalmed. When Williams asked who had done the embalming work, Ryder said he did not know, according to Williams’ account, which reads: “note: it was less than 2 weeks earlier.”

On May 15, a day after the man had been buried, Ryder contacted the cemetery and arranged to have his casket removed from a vault so that he could retrieve the wedding ring and give it to the man’s wife, which he did.

The report mentions none of the issues found just over a week later, when the inspectors and other officials descended on the funeral home.

Dan Crowley can be reached at dcrowley@gazettenet.com.


 


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