Woman's body has been at mortuary for more than a year

CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - The body of Nancy Jo Roberts has been at a mortuary for more than a year now.

How does something like this happen? Haphazardly, FOX19 NOW has learned. As it turns out, the state doesn't officially track cases like hers.

And as of right now, her family is still not being told what happened to their beloved sister and aunt, a developmentally disabled woman, who would have celebrated her 77th birthday just a few days ago.

Roberts had a happy upbringing. Despite her limitations since birth, her parents raised her to be strong and independent.

"My aunt was very capable. She was able to take care of her own hygiene, she was able to cook and clean, my grandmother really taught her well," said her nephew Dave Lord. "The one thing my aunt couldn't do -- she could never express to you her fears, her dreams, she couldn't speak clearly."

Lord claims that several years ago, while his aunt was in a Cleveland-area nursing home, she was raped by a worker there. That man went to jail.

"Justice was served in that case," said Lord.

Nancy was then transferred to the North Bend Group Home in Cincinnati where she lived for three years. Family routinely flew her to visit them during the holidays.

But with Roberts' declining health and no family living in Cincinnati to check on her regularly, Hamilton County Probate court assigned Joe Stenger as guardian.

"A social worker with the group home contacted Mr. Stenger who then, with his attorney, prepared and filed the papers with the court.  An expert evaluation was filed. The court investigator went out, visited with her, served her notice, prepared his own report, a hearing was held and the magistrate determined that indeed Ms. Roberts needed to have a guardian at that particular point in time, " said Paul Rattermann, Chief Magistrate of the Hamilton County Probate Court.

The family says nobody reached out to them.

"On the application the guardian filed with the probate court, he listed there was no known next of kin," said Rattermann, who explained, under Ohio Revised Code 2111, next of kin who live out of state do not need to be notified.

Lord insists all they would have had to do was ask.

According to court documents, Stenger would visit Nancy monthly. FOX19 NOW stopped by Stenger's house to question him about how Roberts died. His wife said he was not home, and he never got back in touch with us.

Stenger had moved Roberts from North Bend to the Veranda Gardens nursing home. Her family, though, had no idea she'd been moved until her brother called North Bend one day to speak with her and was told she was no longer there.

"The guardian moved her from the facility where she was happy to this nursing home where, seven months later, she passed away," said Lord.

The family asked why no autopsy was done. The Hamilton County Coroner's office tells FOX19 NOW it was a non-coroner's case.

The coroner usually gets involved if there is anything unexpected or unnatural about a person's death. According to her medical records, it appears she died of natural causes related to heart failure. This was a non-coroner's case and she did not need an autopsy.

Roberts' body was brought to Premium Mortuary Services, the same mortuary FOX19 NOW has investigated twice in the past several months (after the state board fined them for multiple violations). It was actually Roberts' body that triggered a firestorm of controversy this past summer. Owner Casey Liston talked only to FOX19 NOW about what really happened there.

It was late Christmas Eve 2016, just after midnight, when Lord's family got the call from Veranda Gardens, the Hamilton County nursing home a court-appointed guardian had moved Roberts to several months earlier.

"Calling to inform you that your sister Nancy passed away tonight," Lord recounted. "And Joe Stenger got on the phone, said that he didn't have anything else to do with it, with my aunt now that she had passed away."

It's true that Stenger's role as guardian ended the minute Roberts died. But her journey into limbo was just beginning, with her body being taken first to a Colerain Township funeral home.

"Once they realized she was going to be an indigent case for Colerain Township, they did not want to handle that case anymore, so Colerain Township told them to send her to us," said Liston, the owner of Premium Mortuary Services in Carlisle.

When Lord saw FOX19 NOW's report detailing multiple violations at Premium Mortuary Services, he grew concerned.

"My heart just sank to the bottom of my gut," he said.

Meanwhile, it was a strong odor from Roberts' un-embalmed body that triggered the entire investigation of Liston's business.

"Anybody would ask, 'Why?' Why would you still have a body for a year?" said Poul Lemasters, a death care attorney who represented Liston throughout the investigation. "And until you know and understand that -- legally because we have no other choice, there is nothing we can do."

So how does Premium Mortuary become the dumping ground for bodies that funeral homes don't want to deal with? Liston says becoming a holding facility has grown his business.

"They are limited by law as what they're allowed to do," said Lemasters. "All they can do is accept a body."

Premium Mortuary could not do a thing to the body. The only person who was in a position to help the family, Liston, had his hands tied.

"Can't cremate. Can't bury," Lemasters said, replying to questions asked by FOX19 NOW. "(When it comes to Roberts), you hold her and keep her in the most dignified way you can."

There is still no death certificate and no cause of death, Lord said.

"Had we done an autopsy last year, we would have a cause of death and a death certificate and my aunt would be at peace and the family would have closure on this," Lord said.

Again, the state does not officially track indigent cases such as these.

Liston has had long conversations with the family and hears their heartbreak. Premium Mortuary reached out to Lord this week, offering to bury Roberts and give her a proper funeral at their expense, to put the family and Roberts at peace.

To bury her, Liston would need a funeral home and funeral director to process a death certificate, for a doctor to sign the death certificate, permission from her family, and a few more pieces of information.

Lord and his family are considering their options for Roberts' burial now.

Though this is an extreme case, those who don't live near loved ones or check or them regularly could end up in a similar situation.

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