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Body buried in unmarked grave over morgue bill family couldn't pay

Michael Robb's body stayed at the Erie County morgue for three weeks because no one told his family he died.

When his family found out, the body stayed eight more weeks because his loved ones couldn't afford the more than $1,000 in storage fees the Medical Examiner's Office demanded.

"I can’t believe he was left there for so long, as if nobody loved him, just sitting there," sobbed his mother, Michele Robb. "But he was loved. He was so loved. Honestly, I feel like they held him for ransom."

Family members had reached out to the Medical Examiner's Office, a funeral home and community organizations. But Robb was still buried as an "unclaimed" body in an unmarked grave in West Seneca, nearly three months after employees found the homeless, former Sweet Home High School student unconscious in a downtown McDonald's bathroom.

County officials cited extenuating circumstances that led to his body being designated unclaimed by the Social Services Department. Government and police officials who knew Robb's identity said they tried but couldn't reach the family.

A dispute over whether the homeless man legally resided in Erie County or Niagara County complicated matters from the start.

The Robbs said neither the county nor the police gave much thought to a poor family trying to lay their loved one to rest. As family members mark the one-year anniversary of his death, they said they still feel a weight of injustice from a system that failed them.

"They didn't think about him," said his sister Katelyn Willard, 19. "They didn't think about his family or his friends who loved him."

On a sunny afternoon last month, the family visited Robb's gravesite at Mount Hope Cemetery. The family set up a vase of artificial flowers and laid a fresh bouquet on the grass. They put ornaments from Dollar General around a thin marble plaque from Home Depot they engraved with his name.

At the gravesite, Willard tried to describe her sweet and protective older brother "Mikey," but her voice caught. She closed her eyes and touched her forehead to still a spasm of grief. Her eyes remained dry.

"He cared about me, and he loved my mother so much," she finally said. "He wouldn’t want us to cry."

The search

A photo of Robb tucked into the flowers shows a happy and handsome young man, both arms around his mother, his head resting against hers. His two smiling sisters in the foreground complete the family portrait. He called his mother every day.

When he disappeared last July, his family searched for him.

"I went in alleys. I went in fields," his mother said. "We drove through abandoned parking lots, buildings. I contacted all his friends."

Michele Robb filled out a missing person's report, but police sounded skeptical that he wasn't just on a bender, his mother said.

Her daughter Stephanie Robb called jails, hospitals and the morgue.

Michael Robb, 26, died last July, but the family couldn't afford to claim his body from Erie County. (Courtesy of Stephanie Robb)

She asked the Medical Examiner's Office if it picked up any "John Does." But no John Does fit her brother's description. She didn't offer her brother's name, and the Medical Examiner's Office staff never asked.

As far as Erie County was concerned, Michael Robb's body wasn't a John Doe. The county knew exactly who he was.

At the McDonald's where he was found unconscious, an assistant manager gave him CPR while waiting for an ambulance. Robb's cellphone repeatedly rang, but police advised employees not to answer, the family said.

He died at the restaurant after 11 p.m. July 26 and was taken to the morgue early  July 27. Buffalo police quickly identified Robb by his tattoos, county officials said. Robb had been previously arrested on theft and drug charges, so police had photos of his tattoos on file. They also found a listed home address in North Tonawanda based on an old traffic ticket, county officials said.

Police were initially responsible for notifying next of kin. They had the missing person's report for Robb, but the mother had mistakenly written an incorrect contact number. She had loaned her own phone to her son, so she didn't have one. She provided a correct address, she said, but the police never visited or mailed her anything.

The police did not pass information from the missing person's report to the Medical Examiner's Office, according to the county.

It wasn't until Aug. 16, when Stephanie Robb called the police to check on the status of the missing person's report, that the family learned what happened. Their loved one had been dead and in storage for weeks.

A price for his body

When Stephanie Robb followed up with the Medical Examiner's Office, she learned two things:

  • Because police incorrectly identified Robb as living in Niagara County, the family was ineligible for a $900 burial grant from Erie County.
  • The funeral home or family that claimed his body would be billed $27.50 for every day the body remained in the morgue.

The Robbs didn't have the money to bury him or to pay the storage fee, which had risen to $1,300 by the time she called. The family's oldest daughter had died in Arizona three months earlier, and the family was tapped out from traveling there.

"Every day it just kept adding up," Stephanie Robb said.

The Medical Examiner's Office agreed to waive the fees for the weeks the family had been unaware Robb's body was at the morgue. But the balance was still insurmountable.

Ben Swanekamp, the Health Department policy director, said the storage fee is meant to be a service charge for funeral homes that don't have cold storage facilities. Most identified bodies are claimed by funeral homes within a couple of days, he said.

He also said the Medical Examiner's Office never refuses to release a body for lack of payment. But no one told the family that, and regardless, the funeral home or family would still be billed for the storage costs incurred.

Michele Robb asked two community organizations to intervene. Both tried but were essentially told her son's case was someone else's problem.

The Medical Examiner's Office told a counselor with Evergreen Health Services to contact Niagara County Social Services. But when the counselor called Niagara County, she was referred to Erie County Social Services, according to Evergreen staff. An Erie County employee then referred the counselor back to Niagara County.

When the counselor asked those at the Medical Examiner's Office if there was anything else she could do, they told her no.

Missed connections

County officials said Robb's case is not typical.

Had Robb been identified from the start as an indigent Erie County resident, the county would have waived the storage fees and offered the family a $900 death benefit to offset cremation or burial costs, said Keith Pelkey, the senior investigator who supervises the the Burial Unit in the Special Investigations Division of Social Services.

"It’s in our best interests to notify next of kin so we can save money and save the taxpayers money," he said.

The contract cost for the county to bury an indigent, unclaimed body is $2,495.

But Erie County relied on a single, outdated address provided by Buffalo police. When the Medical Examiner's Office tried to turn over Robb's case to Erie County Social Services on Aug. 10, 2018, Social Services quickly responded the case belonged to Niagara County.

Dead, poor and alone: What the county does with unclaimed bodies

Social Services investigators made an initial call to Michele Robb, calling the number on her prior food stamps application, but that number belonged to the phone she had loaned to her son and was on him the day he died.

The Special Investigations Unit has multiple tools to help locate next of kin. That includes fee-based, people-finder databases, social media and archived Social Services and welfare records. But county officials said they do not routinely work with law enforcement to obtain missing persons reports or inmate records.

Stephanie Robb said she told the Medical Examiner's Office that her brother lived in Erie County, signed into local shelters and had been locked up in the Alden Correctional Facility for nearly a year. He was released the month before he died.

The Sheriff's Office said Robb had been an inmate on multiple occasions and listed different home addresses.

His mother, Michele, had been living in Arizona but moved back when she learned her son had been jailed. When he was released, she was staying with a friend and couldn't offer him a place to live. Before and after his jail terms, he slept on friends' couches, in city shelters, on park benches and in fields, his family said.

County officials said that at some point, family members should have spoken to case managers in the Special Investigation Division and Burial Unit.

"It’s not like we were doing nothing," said Brian Bray, special assistant commissioner for Social Services. "At some point, it’s incumbent on the family to contact us."

Another dead end

Family members said they had no idea they could contact the county's Burial Unit investigators. Nobody told them. Special Investigation Director Craig Provenzo said his team had no idea the Medical Examiner's Office had been in touch with members of Michael Robb's family.

The Medical Examiner's Office repeatedly told Stephanie Robb that she needed to work through a funeral home to get her brother's body released.

She called John Roberts Funeral Home because it appeared to have reasonable rates. She said she spoke at length with a man named Charles about her brother's situation. He sounded sympathetic and promised to follow up, she said.

After a few days passed, Stephanie Robb called the funeral home again but Charles didn't answer. When she tried again two days later, he asked her to give him 15 minutes to review her file and promised to call back, she said. He never did.

County officials said funeral home directors are aware of the daily morgue storage costs involved in claiming a body because they frequently do business with the county. Michael Robb's fees were higher than most.

The Buffalo News contacted funeral home director Charles Durante. He said he had no recollection of the family or this case. Stephanie Robb produced phone records confirming she had repeatedly called the funeral home.

But after getting nowhere with the funeral home, Stephanie Robb gave up.

"I just figured we were a charity case nobody wanted," she said.

A resident after all

Robb seemed as homeless in death as he was in life.

"He was still getting beat down even though he was already gone," his mother said.

Michael Robb had wanted to be a musician. But he had a learning disability and struggled as a student. He was also stymied when applying for jobs and Social Services benefits because he couldn't provide all the paperwork needed for a driver's license or state ID, his mother said.

He became addicted to drugs and spent years on the couches of friends and in and out of jail. His mother recalled sleeping outside with him sometimes because she didn't want him to be alone.

Michael Robb with his sisters and hugging his mother, Michele, a month before he died. (Courtesy of Stephanie Robb)

Provenzo, the Special Investigation Division director, said one lesson from the case is that the Medical Examiner's Office and the Burial Unit need to communicate better.

"We need to get that phone number from the family member, even if the case is going to another county," he said.

The body had been in the morgue for two months when Niagara County officials informed the Erie County Medical Examiner's Office that they had no evidence Robb was ever a Niagara County resident. He was an Erie County resident after all.

That made Erie County's Burial Unit responsible for seeking out family members who could claim the body, only this time, the family would be eligible for a death benefit and could finally have all morgue fees waived.

The county attempted to call the mother's cellphone, but that phone was presumably with Michael Robb's other personal effects. The county also sent a letter to her old Amherst address from the food stamp application. It was returned as undeliverable.

The county in September also called back a man who had contacted the morgue a month earlier to see if Robb's body was still there. In the August call, the man who identified himself as Charles said he was Robb's brother. But Robb had no brother, and the person who answered the county's return call said he was not Charles, county officials said.

In October, Michael Robb was buried "unclaimed" in Mount Hope Cemetery.

Laid to rest

For a long time, Michele Robb was afraid to see where the county buried her son. But she was relieved to see fresh grass was growing at his gravesite in early summer.

As Robb's siblings beautified the spot, his mother wondered how long the makeshift plaque and ornaments would last.

"It would be nice to give him a headstone," she said.

Stephanie Robb said she didn't want to keep asking their friends for money, but the brother she called Mikey deserved a headstone. So the family created a GoFundMe page.

Michele Robb struggles to accept her son is dead. She often thinks she sees him in crowds.

"I didn’t get to put a blanket on him," she said. "I didn’t get to kiss his forehead. I didn’t get to do anything that mother could do. He never had a proper goodbye."

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