Sangamon County Coroner said his office “could be approaching the 100 mark” of families who got the wrong remains

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — Rebecca Zillion has spent the past four months trying to process the loss of her father, Patrick Williams.

Williams was 63 years old when he found out the leukemia that he nearly died fighting off only two years prior had returned. He died in June.

“I’ve been trying to kind of work on just my grief,” Zillion said. “And I started seeing a grief counselor actually recently, too.”

She and her family have been supporting each other all summer. In September, they all gathered for a celebration of his life.

“He was a jokester,” Zillion said. “He was a hunter. He was a motorcycle rider. He worked on cars. He loved to keep busy. He loved to do things he loved. He made a friend everywhere he went.”

After that celebration ended, she and her family did something they were waiting until that event to do. They dispersed the ashes. Williams wanted to be cremated. Before he died, Williams set up his cremation with Family Care Cremations, a local company owned by the same people who own Heinz Funeral Home in Carlinville.

Each member of Zillion’s family was given some of what they thought were William’s ashes. Each one had their own container for the ashes. Zillion chose to keep her father in a heart-shaped pendent that she wore every day.

“Being able to wear the necklace and have him, it was like almost like I could talk to him at any point,” Zillion said. “Like I did. I talked to the necklace all the time.”

But in early October, Zillion got the call that nearly 100 families all over Central Illinois have gotten from the Sangamon County Coroner’s office. She found out that the ashes she had been wearing around her neck for weeks were not actually her fathers.

“I just I kind of went numb again, kind of like I did when (he died),” Zillion said. “And then I started thinking about all the other families and I just got completely overwhelmed.”

On September 29th, Sangamon County Coroner Jim Allmon announced his office was opening an investigation into Heinz Funeral Home/Family Care Cremations after he found that the home had given multiple families the wrong cremated remains. The initial press conference he held that day was as much a call for help in the investigation as it was an announcement. He wanted any families that had done business with the funeral home to contact his office so he could confirm if they had the correct ashes or not. In just the last two weeks, his office has confirmed nearly 100 cases where families were given the wrong ashes.

“I’ve talked to several people who have been given cremains of people that died two years ago, prior to their loved one dying,” Allmon said.

Allmon says there is no sign that they are approaching the end of this search.

“At this point, don’t have answers for them,” Allmon said Tuesday.

Zillion’s mother saw the reports about the investigation, and she contacted Rebecca, fearing that they were one of the victims. The Monday following the press conference, Zillion’s mother contacted the coroner’s office, and that’s when her fears were confirmed.

Zillion immediately took to social media, posting about her own story on her Facebook. It was there that she started to truly understand the scope of this investigation.

“I was, you know, telling people that if you if you’ve gone through these places, please contact the coroner’s office or something,” Zillion said. “So families just started immediately messaging me, which is completely fine. I will talk to anybody who reaches out to me, absolutely. I’ve no problem with that. But I immediately seen the need for for us to come together and to be able to support each other. And the best way to do that is to create a Facebook group.”

So she did just that. Zillion created the Facebook group called “Support for those affected by Heinz Funeral Home/Family Care Cremations”. The group is a place for families that are affected to cope, process their grief and ask questions.

“Some are finding out that they have the correct remains. Some of them aren’t really making sense to them still, so they still have questions,” Zillion said. “And we actually have a local funeral home director and his wife that are in the group that had been wonderful, and really helping with answering questions. And if I don’t know, then I turn them to them.”

Zillion said that deciding to help people who have had to face the same terrible truth she had to face is helping her cope.

“Helping them is what has helped me the most,” Zillion said. “Helping other families understand or know where to go or know the right questions to ask or you know, and that has helped me the most.”

Zillion is one of the few people who have received good news during this investigation. On Tuesday morning, Zillion’s mother got a call from the coroner, saying they had located her father’s actual remains, and that they could come pick them up.

“It was just a sigh of relief, like to know that we did find them and I don’t have to live the rest of my life not knowing where my dad’s cremains are,” Zillion said.

Allmon’s office has been able to make more of those calls as more people have come forward.

“We have returned five or six different cremains to their families already so far (Tuesday),” Allmon said.

The more people come forward, the better chance his office has to return someone else’s remains, but it also deepens the rabbit hole.

“Every time we get a set of cremains from someone, we know that there’s somebody else we have to notify, and we know that that person probably has a set of cremains. And we’re gonna have to notify that person as well,” Allmon said.

The investigation into the funeral home is far from over. Allmon says the investigation is now “multi-jurisdictional”, meaning there are several agencies, including other counties and even state agencies involved. The Illinois State Police are investigating, and last week, the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation confirmed that they permanently revoked the license of Heinz Funeral Home director Albert Heinz. Heinz Funeral Home has not responded to multiple requests for comment.

“I know that there’s multiple law enforcement agencies involved right now,” Allmon said. “I know that they’re it’s multi-jurisdictional. I know that those law enforcement agencies are in contact with each other. And I know that they will be making a decision at some point to maybe appoint an agency to spearhead this investigation.”

So far, no charges, either criminal or civil, have been filed against the funeral home or the owner. Sangamon County Sheriff Jack Campbell said when the investigation was first announced that his department and the Sangamon County State’s Attorney were still trying to learn if there were any charges on the books that applied to this case.

While the investigation is getting more complex, Allmon continues to make calls. One thing more than anything else has become apparent.

“The only thing that I’ve learned through this investigation is how much damage this this has done to families emotionally and and how many people were victimized as a result of what’s transpired,” Allmon said.

Any many cases, this does not boil down to an easy exchange for the coroner’s office. People do all sorts of things with their loved ones ashes. In Zillion’s case, they stored remains in jewelry, and the family went home to different corners of the Midwest. In other cases, urns are buried at a grave site. Allmon said that families are considering digging up the remains of the wrong remains so they can get back to their proper families. That process requires a court order and the permission of the family who buried them.

“The families that I’ve talked to, that have buried the cremains they want their loved one where they’re supposed to be,” Allmon said. “So they they do want whoever it is to be exhumed, and they want that person’s family to be able to receive their loved one, and they want their loved one placed where they should be.”

In other cases, families have already spread the ashes at a place that was special to their loved one. Zillion said she has talked to families who have been struck by a whole different form of grief after they learned they spread another person’s ashes in a place that wasn’t meaningful to them.

“There are some people that have spread the ashes already,” Zillion said. “And one thing that I want to tell those people that you didn’t know. It’s not your fault. Please don’t beat yourself up over this.”

Zillion said she is not going to stop offering help and advice like that, despite her own individual nightmare wrapping up with as happy of an ending as possible. She still plans on running her support group, and she still plans on seeking justice.

“This changes nothing. I’m still here for every single one of you. I am still on this fight. And I’m still not backing down. I am not backing down.”