Death and Laxness

Vicente Gurrola's shattered body lay by the roadside on 35th Avenue as a white Toyota pickup sped away shortly after 1 a.m. on Sunday, May 16.

His back broken, the 33-year-old landscaper died on the street before rescue workers arrived. His body was sent to the Maricopa County Medical Examiner's Office where an autopsy was performed, and his survivors were notified of his death.

Later that day, at the family's request, his body was transported to Harvey Funeral Chapel, 1505 East McDowell, to be prepared for shipment back home to his grieving parents in Mexico.

The wrenching news of Gurrola's death at the hands of a hit-and-run driver was just the beginning of a gruesome week for his loved ones. They say their suffering was aggravated immeasurably by a series of callous and devious actions by the Reverend Anthony B. Harvey, director of the Harvey Funeral Chapel, a man who already has been cited and now is under investigation by state officials for other alleged grisly and cold-hearted acts toward grieving families.

The Family's Story
Gurrola's cousin, Maxine Ramirez, says she arrived at the Harvey Funeral Chapel shortly before 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday, May 19. She joined about a dozen of Gurrola's friends and relatives there hoping to view Gurrola's body before it was to be transported to Sky Harbor Airport at 10 a.m. The body was to be put on an AeroMexico flight to Mexico City, then to Durango, where full funeral services were planned.

Ramirez, the only person in the contingent who speaks English, says she was surprised to see everyone gathered outside the chapel when she arrived. She says Harvey told them the funeral home was preparing the body to be shipped, so there wouldn't be a chance for the family to see it.

But the family pressed Harvey, offering $200 to view the body before it was sent to the airport.

Ramirez says Harvey agreed to a limited viewing for family members.
"They were told it would have to be very fast--they would only have five minutes," Ramirez says.

Gathered in the chapel's foyer, the survivors waited while Harvey went to retrieve the body. Moments later, he returned with a neatly dressed and groomed body of a young Hispanic male.

The family was aghast.
"Esta no es!" Gurrola's sister screamed.
It was the wrong body.

Harvey quickly removed the cadaver and returned with Gurrola's body a few minutes later.

"That body had just a sheet up to the neck," Ramirez says.
The sister approached the body and pulled back the sheet to look at his shoulders to discover a revolting sight.

"Tienes sangre!" she shrieked before fainting and falling to the floor as Harvey stood by and watched.

"I started thinking to myself, oh my God, there's blood," Ramirez says. "This body is not even cleaned up."

There was blood on his shoulder, on the sheet and on his feet, Ramirez says.
The group whisked the sister outside to revive her. By the time she regained consciousness, Gurrola's body had been removed from the foyer. A few minutes later, Ramirez says, Harvey loaded a cardboard box into a hearse and told the family it held Gurrola's remains.

Ramirez says she asked Harvey if the family could look inside the box to make sure it was Gurrola, but Harvey refused, saying he couldn't open the container once it was sealed.

"Then the hearse drove away with the body," Ramirez says. "We thought the deceased was taken to the airport."

Ramirez returned to work, but the unnerving events of the morning haunted her throughout the day.

"I thought I was going crazy," she says. "The more I sat here and thought about it and thought about it, I was becoming a nervous wreck. I couldn't even work."

To ease her mind, she says, she called the Harvey Funeral Chapel to get flight information for Gurrola's body. What she learned left her in a rage.

"The receptionist stated that Gurrola's body was still there," she said. "It would be shipped the next day at 10 a.m."

The family already had made arrangements for Gurrola's body to be picked up at the airport in Mexico that day. But the body would still be in Arizona.

Ramirez says she called Gurrola's brother. They immediately went to the funeral home and demanded to see Gurrola's body. Ramirez says Harvey was shocked to see them back at the funeral home.

She says Harvey told them that the receptionist was mistaken and that Gurrola's body was at the airport. It had missed the plane because of time lost while the family was viewing the body that morning, she says she was told.

Ramirez says Harvey called someone and instructed that person to bring the body back to the funeral home. In the meantime, the family decided it wanted a formal viewing and ceremony.

"I told him we wanted to have a ceremony here," Ramirez says. "He [Harvey] says we can't."

Ramirez says Harvey told the family they would have to buy a casket for a ceremony at the funeral home. Gurrola's brother agreed to purchase a casket for $1,856.26.

"We didn't want to show him to people in a cardboard box," Ramirez says.
She says the family arranged for a two-hour service the next morning, Thursday, May 20, beginning at 8:30 a.m.

That evening, Ramirez says, she called AeroMexico to check Harvey's story and found that Harvey Funeral Chapel had never even made flight reservations for Gurrola on May 19.

In fact, Ramirez says, airline officials told her that the funeral home had not called about Gurrola until that afternoon, and then to make a reservation for a 2 p.m. flight the next day, Thursday, May 20.

So who was the body in the cardboard box that Ramirez says Harvey loaded into the hearse that morning in front of the family? By this time, Ramirez was suspicious of Harvey and tried to make arrangements with another funeral home to take over the service.

But, she says, there wasn't enough time to line up another service on such short notice. Ramirez says family and friends returned to the Harvey Funeral Chapel the next morning for the scheduled 8:30 service.

This time, Gurrola's body was clean and properly presented. A Catholic priest officiated.

Still, Ramirez says, the family was anxious about turning Gurrola back over to Harvey, who planned to take the body to the airport for the AeroMexico flight.

"How are we going to know the body was going to get on the flight?" Ramirez says. "One of the cousins asked if he [Harvey] would release the body to us so we would take him to Mexico."

Harvey agreed, and refunded the family $400 for the airfare.
The family loaded Gurrola's casket into the back of a van. Cash was raised for expenses, and the driver took off to Mexico, arriving in Gurrola's hometown near Durango 18 hours later.

Harvey's Story
Reverend Anthony Harvey's version of the events is strikingly different from Ramirez's.

For reasons that aren't clear, Harvey says the whole thing happened on the same day--Thursday, May 20--not spread over two days--May 19 and 20--as described by Ramirez.

But the Catholic priest who officiated the May 20 service, the transport company that took care of flight arrangements as well as Harvey's own records all back up Ramirez's version of events.

Still, according to Harvey, the tumultuous series of events began on the morning of Thursday, May 20.

"There were about 15 or 20 folks in my parking lot around 7:30 a.m.," Harvey explains. "I don't open until 9:30 a.m. They wanted to see the body, but there was nobody with authorization to do that."

Harvey says the brother showed up around 9 a.m.
"He asked me for a viewing," Harvey says. "I said, 'I can only let in about five people.'"

Harvey says he agreed and charged the family $200, which the brother paid. (The viewing charge does not appear on any bill, receipt or contract.)

"This was all done according to what the family was asking," he says.
But Harvey says he didn't know for sure it was Gurrola's family he was dealing with; he had the body of another young Hispanic man in his funeral home as well, also to be shipped back to Mexico.

Harvey brought out the first body in a casket.
"They said, 'That's not him.' I said, 'Who are you? Which family are you?'" Harvey says.

When he learned he was dealing with Gurrola's family, Harvey says he retrieved the proper body.

"At that point, we brought him out under a sheet," Harvey says.
Harvey says he was standing next to Gurrola's sister and saw her reaction to the blood-stained body sitting in a cardboard box rather than a formal coffin.

"It was a lot of show," Harvey says. "A lot of it is--people faint at funerals."

Harvey says he saw the sister collapse, and he let her fall.
"I don't catch anybody when they are falling," he explains. "I messed up my back. I stepped aside. I don't catch anybody."

Harvey says after the sister fainted, he took Gurrola's body back to get it dressed and ready to go to the airport. The body was to be transported in the cardboard box, called a combination box, rather than a casket because Gurrola's family in Mexico had a casket.

Harvey says the family appeared worried when he was loading the cardboard box into the hearse.

"The family was concerned about the earlier mix-up," Harvey says.
But, he says, he reassured the family that the box held Gurrola, noting that the other body was in a casket.

"One was in the casket, one was in a box. You can't mix that up," Harvey says.

Harvey says once the hearse left for the airport, the family began talking about a full service. The hearse was already late for the airport because the viewing had gone longer than expected, Harvey says.

"I called up and talked to my driver. He said we were too late for the airport. I was talking to the family, and we decided let's bring the body back here, and at that point they purchased a casket."

Harvey says the body returned to the funeral chapel by 10:45 a.m.--on Thursday, May 20.

He says he put Gurrola's body in the newly purchased casket, and the family gathered a few minutes later for a two-hour viewing.

"Since they had already paid for a viewing, and it was only under a sheet, I didn't charge them anything else," Harvey says.

Harvey says a priest officiated the service that ended sometime in the early afternoon on May 20.

Then, Harvey says, the family began pressing for an immediate flight to Mexico, or they would take legal action. Harvey says he told the family that since the service had just ended, and it was early afternoon, it would be impossible to make the flight that day. The body needed to be at the airport by 10 a.m., he says he told them, in order to be in Tucson by 2 p.m. to catch a flight to Mexico.

"They said, 'Can we drive him?' I said sure. All these papers have to stay with the body," Harvey says.

The family, Harvey says, was given the proper documents to transport Gurrola's body to Mexico.

"They took the body, and that was it," Harvey says.

A review of documentation and a series of interviews by New Times reveals numerous discrepancies in Harvey's depiction of events and raises questions of whether Gurrola's body was properly cared for by the funeral chapel.

According to documents signed by a secretary at the Harvey Funeral Chapel, Gurrola's body was embalmed on May 16, the same day as his death. Funeral records show, however, that Gurrola's brother, Jose, did not authorize embalming until the next day, May 17.

Harvey wouldn't go into much detail about the preparation of the body, saying it was a private matter.

The embalming process should have removed blood from Gurrola's body and given the funeral home plenty of opportunity to clean the body up before it was first presented to the family--on May 19 according to Ramirez, and May 20 according to Harvey.

Both Ramirez and Harvey agree the body had blood on it when it was shown to the sister and family members, raising the possibility that the body had not yet been embalmed.

Other records show that the family contracted for funeral services on May 17 and paid for them on May 19. The family also appears to have agreed to purchase a casket at about the same time. The $1,856 receipt for the casket is not dated, but the receipt number comes before the receipt for funeral services.

The receipts support Ramirez's version that the funeral events began on May 19, rather than Harvey's assertion of May 20.

Harvey's claim that Gurrola's body arrived too late at the airport on May 20 to be transported to Mexico is contradicted by an airline official.

An official at Sun Devil Enterprises, which handles the shipment of human remains to Mexico for AeroMexico, says all flights originate at Sky Harbor Airport, not in Tucson, as Harvey claims.

The cargo manager of Sun Devil Enterprises, who wanted to be identified only as Ray, says he received a call from Harvey Funeral Home on the afternoon of Wednesday, May 19, to reserve space for Gurrola's remains for the next day. The call to Sun Devil was placed hours after Harvey had already told the family, according to Ramirez, that Gurrola's body would be on the flight to Mexico that day.

Moreover, Ray says the 10 a.m. deadline is flexible. If the funeral home calls and says they are running late, the airline can make adjustments.

"If we get the heads up, we can plan accordingly," he says.
While Harvey contends that Gurrola's body was sent to Sun Devil on May 20, but got there too late and returned to the funeral chapel, Ray says Gurrola's body never arrived at Sun Devil.

"We never saw those remains," he says.
But the day before--on May 19--Sun Devil did receive a body from Harvey Funeral Chapel. Ray says that body was shipped to Torreon, Mexico, and appears to have been the other young Hispanic man handled by the funeral home the same day.

The final blow to Harvey's version of events centers on the May 20 service. Both Ramirez and Harvey agree that a formal, two-hour viewing and rosary officiated by a Catholic priest occurred on May 20.

Ramirez says the service began at 8:30 in the morning. Harvey says it didn't begin until the afternoon, after the body had returned from the airport.

Father Gilbert Chacon conducted Gurrola's charity service.
"I had the funeral on May 20, Thursday, at 8:30 a.m., and it's logged into my calendar," Chacon says.

Ramirez says she is preparing to file a complaint with the Arizona State Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers over the services performed by Harvey Funeral Chapel.

"He was just lying the whole time and making up stories," Ramirez says of Harvey. "I knew he was just lying, because all these people were just Spanish-speaking."

Funeral board officials are very familiar with problems at Harvey Funeral Chapel.

In March 1997, the funeral board fined Harvey Funeral Chapel $2,098.70 for several violations, including improper accounting of payments and refusal to release a body for burial until the chapel was paid in full.

According to funeral board records, Harvey stopped a graveside service and threatened to take the body back to his funeral chapel unless the family paid $853.38 in cash.

"After collecting payment, [Harvey] proceeded with the burial," funeral board records state.

The board determined that Harvey's actions violated statutes "by dealing with funeral services customers in a [sic] unresponsive and insensitive manner" and "engaging in conduct that causes or results in disrespect to the deceased."

Problems at Harvey Funeral Chapel surfaced again last fall. The funeral board is nearly finished with an investigation stemming from a report in a Hispanic newspaper about a series of events at a funeral last September.

According to the account in Prensa Hispana that triggered the investigation, Harvey delivered an improperly prepared body to a church for a funeral service. The newspaper reported that blood was dripping from the casket as it was taken into the church.

Harvey--who once operated a funeral parlor that offered drive-through viewings--reportedly asked everyone to leave the church while he touched up the body. According to the newspaper, when the casket was reopened, a plastic bag was wrapped around the head of the body. When the bag was removed, the face appeared swollen and disfigured. Blood was running from the sides of the deceased's shirt.

The priest officiating the service demanded that the casket be closed immediately, to prevent flies from landing on the body, according to the newspaper.

Funeral board investigators say the board has finished its review of the case and has notified Harvey of the pending action. The board, however, cannot comment further on the case until the state Attorney General's Office finishes its review.

Harvey declined to comment about that investigation.

Contact John Dougherty at his online address: [email protected]

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty