W5 investigates: Mattawa's funeral home horror
Published Saturday, November 14, 2009 6:57PM EST
Suffering from cancer and with not long to live, Shirley Condie of Mattawa, Ont., planned her funeral the way some people plan for a wedding.
Condie knew what dress she wanted to wear. She wanted her local hairdresser to fix her hair and one of her daughters to apply her makeup. And she wanted an open casket.
Condie died in the local hospital of pancreatic cancer in 2006. She had suffered terribly throughout her illness and her family hoped to honour her memory by respecting her last wishes.
Yet, when it came time for her funeral in the small Northern Ontario town the funeral director, Timmy Lynn Smith, provided the family with one excuse after another as to why nothing could be done the way Condie had requested. Smith claimed that her body didn't look well enough for an open casket.
"He had painted a terrible picture of what she looked like and he brought the stuff back when he came," recalled Shelly Condie. "He brought her dress and her makeup and her earrings and everything and gave them back to my brother and told him that she couldn't be shown at this time."
It was disappointing for her family. But as they grieved the loss of their mother they had no idea within a year they were about to become embroiled in a ghoulish funeral home nightmare.
Mixed up remains
Ed Wunsch believed he had honoured his brother Henry's last wishes when he buried his brother's ashes in a cemetery near Mattawa. The arrangements had been handled by Timmy Lynn Smith. But only four days after that burial, Wunsch got a call informing him that his brother's body had just been left for cremation.
If not his brother's ashes, who had Ed Wunsch buried in the cemetery near Mattawa? After the box containing the ashes was exhumed it was discovered that the remains actually belonged to another Mattawa resident, Gerald Resmer, who had died a year earlier.
Both Henry Wunsch and Resmer had known each other in life. Now, in death they were entwined in an ever-widening circle of bewilderment by family members who thought they buried their loved ones but now were no longer certain. After all if Gerald Resmer was in Henry Wunsch's grave, whose ashes were buried under Resmer's tombstone?
Finding those answers fell to the North Bay detachment of the Ontario Provincial Police and their investigation quickly led them to Timmy Lynn Smith, the owner and operator of the T.L. Smith Funeral Home in Mattawa, which handled up to 50 funerals a year in the town of 2100 residents.
Smith was once an upstanding local citizen, the funeral director who helped families cope with their loss. He even appeared in televised news reports representing the town following a natural disaster. Now he was being seen as a horror film character in Mattawa's own version of a body snatcher film.
OPP Detective Sergeant Jeff Dagg was the lead investigator. As one mixed-up set of remains led to another, and the circle of mixed-up bodies and urns filled with ashes widened, he found himself exhuming six graves. One of those graves contained Shirley Condie's remains. In all, Dagg found eight sets of cremated remains that were returned to the rightful next of kin for proper burial.
"Sometimes the family were standing right there waiting and you'd come out of the van or whatever it was we were using at the time and have to say 'yea' or 'nay' to the family. And you could see their disappointment and their pain with either answer," said Dagg, recalling his conversations with distraught families. "'Yes, this is your husband' or 'no, I'm sorry, I still don't have your husband'. You know, those kinds of things are very difficult."
Dagg credits organized record-keeping at the local crematorium for making his job easier. Records helped confirm the dates that deceased were brought in for cremation - dates that were often very different from what Smith had told families.
Besides old fashioned detective work, Sgt. Dagg and his team performed duties not normally associated with police procedure. In one case, they even dug the grave for a reburial. "We removed the wrong person and with the spouse of the deceased present, we properly interred her husband in the gravesite where he should have been," Dagg recalls.
But they weren't able to identify all the bodies. The OPP found some ashes that were impossible to identify because the numbered metal disc that is normally placed with each body before cremation, had disappeared. This disc is not destroyed by the high temperatures of cremation and the number inscribed on it corresponds with crematorium documents. But, as Sgt. Dagg discovered, if the disc is separated from the ashes, it's impossible to identify them. Even DNA analysis doesn't work because the heat from the cremation destroys anything that could be analyzed.
Almost two years after the funeral home horror was first discovered, Timmy Lynn Smith appeared in court in North Bay, Ont., facing dozens of charges that ranged from performing an indignity to human remains to neglect of duty to fraud. In the courtroom were some of the family members who had suffered after the funeral director mixed up the bodies and remains.
"We need accountability for everyone involved in order to make sure this never happens again to anyone else," said Shelly Condie, who attended at court.
Smith pleaded guilty to 48 charges but never gave an explanation for his actions. Attempts by W5's Victor Malarek to interview him as he left the court were rebuffed. He is to be sentenced on Dec. 7, 2009.
On Oct. 14, 2009, about 40 Mattawa residents gathered at the cemetery near St. Anne's Roman Catholic Church, to pay their last respects and re-bury two boxes containing unidentified ashes - remains that could be those of friends or even family.
Standing solemn witness alongside the community members were the OPP officers who investigated the macabre case. Sgt. Dagg read the 23rd Psalm.
"These remains were removed from this ground as part of our investigation. And although it was necessary, you have the feeling that these remains are in your possession and not where they're supposed to be," said Sgt. Dagg. "So, to have them back in consecrated ground and placed there by the clergy is very important to our team and to the community."
Father Tim Moyle, who led the service, hoped the reburials would bring peace to those affected by Timmy Lynn Smith. But he was not sure.
"Our hope is that it will bring closure to the people of the town as we as a community get past this," said Father Moyle. "But in all likelihood, the people directly affected will never come to closure in their life. The wound is too deep and too personal."