Cremated remains seized in 2005 Bayview investigation buried in Concord
Milli Knudsen on the left and Jill Rockey look down into the container holding the cermains at the ceremony.
The ceremony held July 10, 2014 at Blossom Hill Cemetery in Concord.
The boxes of cremains in a container at Blossom Hill Cemetery in Concord on July 10, 2014.
The cremated remains of 13 people, buried July 10 at Blossom Hill Cemetery in Concord, were placed side by side in a corner plot of the common ground section.
No one at the ceremony had ever met any of the 13, the last evidence of a crematory scandal that outraged a region a decade ago.
Milli Knudsen, an evidence technician for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Concord, knew more about the 13 lives than anyone else in attendance. She knew their names, and their past. She had done an exhaustive search for relatives or friends who might want to claim the ashes and conduct their own burial services. Some calls went unanswered, not surprising considering some of the 13 had died as many as 30 years ago. The 13 who were buried were those left unclaimed.
The ashes were the “collateral damage” that remained 10 years after scandal at Bayview Crematory in Seabrook. Fifty-seven sets of cremated remains were seized by the state police when they investigated the unlicensed crematory in 2005, an investigation that sent Derek Wallace of Massachusetts and his associates to jail. The ashes were
held as evidence until Wallace was released, held for years at the medical examiner’s office in Concord for safekeeping.
Former state police Trooper 1st Class Jill Rockey led the investigation of the crematory and said her team discovered unlabeled urns of ashes, a decomposing body in a broken cooler, forged certificates and multiple bodies undergoing cremation in the same oven. “It was unbelievable,” she said.
She remembers conversations with people telling her about Wallace changing the price after the cremations had been completed and then withholding their loved ones’ ashes until they paid the difference. At the crematorium, the police discovered more than 20 cremations done without medical examiner cremation certification, more than 40 cremations done with no death certificate and more than 300 cremations done where the next of kin signed an authorization form for another crematorium.
“In general, funeral home directors and crematorium owners are a really nice group of people that help people in their worst moments,” she said. “Unfortunately, Derek Wallace took advantage of people in their worst moments to make more money. . . . He was the one bad apple in the bunch.”
Rockey, who retired from the state police two years ago, said the cremated remains came from Bayview and the funeral homes in Massachusetts operated by Wallace. In criminal cases, evidence is held by the police until the entire case is litigated, but she was able to return as many remains as possible to family members with the understanding that the ashes could be needed at a later date for the case, she said. The other unusual piece was that because the evidence was human remains, it was held in the medical examiner’s office instead of the state police lab.
“I felt so bad because having those cremains in an evidence room really wasn’t okay, and it took a long time,” Rockey said.
When Knudsen started her project at the medical examiner’s office, she had “just rows and rows of urns” in an evidence closet, she said. Some had names attached to the boxes holding the ashes, but others were completely unmarked. Working from the names alone, she located family members for 28 of the cremated persons and was able to return the ashes.
“I would research these names that were on the boxes of ashes, and then if I found a relative, I’d call and I’d say, ‘You don’t know me, but I’m calling from the medical examiner’s office in New Hampshire and I have these remains. Do you know this person?’ ” she said. “It was very odd.”
The people came from Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, she said, and she traveled across the states during the search process.
“I figured some of them had to come from around Lawrence, Mass., where the funeral homes were,” she said. “I went to the Lawrence Public Library and used their newspaper archives on microfilm to try to find obituaries. That was a starting place. I used ancestry.com to find out where these people were, when they died, whether they had relatives alive.”
Paper trails weren’t the end of it. Knudsen said once she found relatives’ names, she would make calls to connect with them.
“I just went through all the options,” she said. “I wrote to synagogues, I wrote to churches. In one case, I wrote to the Embassy of the Dominican Republic. But once I had exhausted those efforts, I still had these 13 urns, so I ended up applying to the court for a motion to bury them.”
As she went through the research, a few of the conversations made a special impression on her.
“There was one lady that I contacted, and I said I had the remains of this person, and she said, ‘How soon can you get those to me?’ I said I could FedEx them overnight, and she said, ‘They’re my husband,’ ” Knudsen said. “She said she hadn’t slept in 10 years wondering where the remains were. She thought they were still in Massachusetts, so she had petitioned the medical examiner there, the governor, the local police, the state police. And when I called her, that was the first time she had any indication of where her husband’s remains were.”
Knudsen learned that one of the 13 people buried at Blossom Hill on July 10 was a man who had spent his last days worrying about who would arrange his burial, she said.
“I located someone at a nursing home who remembered the man whose remains I had. And he had the name of someone else from a church in town, someone who used to come and visit the man I was researching at his deathbed,” she said. “It’s complicated. But I contacted the church, then I found that man who had been at his bedside, and he told me one of the last conversations he’d had with this man was that he was terrified of where he was going to end up being buried. He didn’t have a family, couldn’t find his daughter and just had no idea what was going to happen to his body after he died.
“That just really choked me up. Because this man had expressed a desire to be buried appropriately somewhere; he hoped somebody would care enough to bury him, and then he ended up in limbo for so long.”
Knudsen said it was difficult to give up on finding families of the last 13, but she believed that giving them closure and a ceremony was the best she could do for them.
“For the most part, I wouldn’t say it was an anger thing, but I was really driven to be sure the very best for these people would be done,” she said. “This was through no fault of these people. The last thing they knew was that they were dying, and then all the sudden they became evidence in a case and ended up in my closet. They were collateral damage.”
Knudsen said she thought the common ground area at Blossom Hill Cemetery was an ideal spot to bury the 13 remains. Concord Cemetery Administrator Jill McDaniel and the Rev. Terry Odell had previously held “services of remembrance” for people who died without family to arrange their burials. When Knudsen contacted McDaniel to ask whether such a ceremony was possible, she was told it was “an amazing idea.”
At the July 10 ceremony, a volunteer octet from the Concord Chorale sang, and a vault was donated by Dignified Cemetery Services/Mark Hubbard Vault Company, McDaniel said. Knudsen placed every urn in the vault individually, and Rockey placed a single white rose on top of each.
“It was so touching,” McDaniel said. “Milli was as connected as anyone could be with these people, and you could just see on her face the grief and the sorrow and everything she felt for each one. . . . These 13 people, they deserved the best.”
Knudsen said the final piece of the Bayview story will be finished when she receives legal permission to bury the unlabeled remains that are still in the medical examiner’s office, and McDaniel has a burial plot reserved for them beside the other 13 at Blossom Hill.
“I have a spot reserved for the unknowns already,” McDaniel said. “When their burial is ready, we’ll have a very similar service, but of course we won’t be able to honor them by name. But we’ll still acknowledge their life, the good they did in the world and any suffering they endured.”
The entire situation was like nothing Knudsen had ever heard of before, she said, but she looks forward to burying the last of the ashes and putting the crematorium scandal firmly in the past.
“That will close the book,” she said. “It has been just crazy.”