HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. — A grieving Apollo Beach widow called it the worst decision she’s ever made, when she hired a cremation service online after her husband’s unexpected death earlier this year.
In a complaint submitted to the state, Nancy Irwin wrote that Legacy Funeral Services made multiple errors on her husband William Irwin’s death certificate, that she paid for services she never received, an obituary was never processed, and she had “no clue” where her husband’s remains were.
I-Team Investigator Kylie McGivern discovered the company, which works as a middleman by contacting local licensed funeral homes to complete the services, has left a trail of complaints across the country and shouldn’t even be operating in Florida.
State regulators tell the I-Team Legacy Funeral Services and Heritage Cremation Provider, both owned by A.J. Damiano, are not licensed and have never been licensed in Florida.
The Department of Financial Services, which regulates Florida’s funeral industry, ordered Legacy Funeral Services to stop operating in the state back in 2015.
But the state continues to receive complaints from customers and licensed funeral homes.
As the death toll continues to climb during the pandemic, Irwin’s daughter, Heather Valentino, is warning other families who will be seeking help to bury or cremate a loved one.
William Irwin died in July at 75.
“My father liked to build things and tinker around with things and he had built an electric bike,” Valentino said. “He fell off the bike and hit his head on the sidewalk.”
Valentino said her father wanted to be cremated. So her mom searched for help online.
“She found this company she thought was in Sun City,” Valentino said. “We didn’t realize it was a third party.”
Valentino said her family’s experience with Legacy Funeral Services, which also goes by the name Legacy Cremation Services on its website, was “a struggle all the way through” to get answers, including knowing where were father’s remains were located.
“It was horrible because my mother blamed herself for it,” Valentino said.
Her experience is why she’s speaking up for others, Valentino told the I-Team.
“I don’t want to see anybody go through what my mother went through when my father passed,” she said. “That same anxiety, frustration and emotional stress on top of what’s already there.”
The I-Team obtained state records and found the Irwins are just the latest family to sound the alarm on Legacy Funeral Services or Heritage Cremation Provider. Those records revealed more than 70 pages of complaints were submitted to the Department of Financial Services between 2014 and 2019.
The I-Team found allegations families had not received ashes because the company would not release them, that Damiano “never identified himself as a ‘broker’” who was “outsourcing the funeral”, and that the company “lied about having a body they did not even have.”
A 2016 email from the state agency overseeing funeral services called the complaints “a priority investigation.”
The timeline is significant because most of the complaints the I-Team reviewed were sent after the state ordered the company to stop operating in Florida back in 2015. The cease and desist order gave examples of Legacy Funeral Services and Heritage Cremation Provider providing “false and fraudulent documentation” to consumers.
After the companies violated the cease and desist order, in 2019, a judge ordered Legacy to pay $10,000 to the state.
They never did.
Over the last three months, the I-Team asked the Department of Financial Services for an interview to ask how the company continues to do business in Florida and what the state is doing to protect consumers.
No one from the state has agreed talk on camera.
In an email, a spokesman said, “The Department is currently exploring other options for legal actions relating to these matters.”
Florida isn’t the first state to do so.
The I-Team found warnings about Legacy Funeral Services and Heritage Cremation Provider echo far beyond the state line.
In Texas, for example, a Corpus Christi widow told ABC Action News’ sister station that she too didn’t know where her husband was for nearly a month.
“I said, ‘Well where is my husband?’ I said, ‘I don’t understand why I don’t have his ashes yet’,” Glorida Garcia told KRIS 6 News, saying she spoke with A.J. Damiano. “I felt threatened. Like I’m not going to get my ashes unless I give him this letter that I’m not going to contact the news.”
The I-Team found cease and desist orders in Tennessee against Legacy Funeral Services and against Heritage Cremation Provider in Colorado, where Legacy also still lists the same address on its invoice. There was also an injunction in North Carolina against both company names for unlicensed funeral services.
Florida’s Department of Financial Services told the I-Team it is not aware of any active state licenses in other states related to Damiano’s businesses.
Poul Lemasters, the general counsel for the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association (ICCFA), said, “rules and regulations only work for the people that follow them.”
Lemasters said the problem is state regulators don’t have a big enough hammer to stop the companies.
“They’re able to go after the folks in their state that are licensed. Well, they’re not licensed and they’re not in that state,” Lemasters said. “They continue to just create a new website, put up a new phone number, and they just keep on rolling.”
Lemasters said ICCFA has had its own problems with Legacy Funeral Services using the association’s logo.
“They will actually take our logo, ICCFA, and then they’ll post it on their site, saying, you know, ‘proud member’ or you know, ‘member in good standing’ which they are not.”
The I-Team contacted Legacy Funeral Services and emailed a link to Florida’s consumer alert showing the cease and desist order.
The comapny's response read, “I am very sorry but we won’t be giving an interview at this time. Thank you.”
The I-Team called and asked for A.J. Damiano, to give him another opportunity to respond.
A man who identified himself as “John” called back from a blocked number and did not give permission for the I-Team to record the conversation.
He said several times during the phone call that Legacy Funeral Services is licensed, but refused to say in what state(s).
He then told the I-Team that unless there is a court order, the state cannot stop them from doing business in Florida.
Again, a judge did issue a court order last year.
When the I-Team brought the Irwin family’s concerns to the company, the man said the family has been made whole and there are no issues.
The Irwins did eventually receive William’s remains. But they tell the I-Team they are still waiting on a corrected death certificate from the state.
“This is not about the money, this is about people. I’m reaching out to people that are going to go through the same process,” Valentino said.
Valentino said this is what her dad would want.
“He would want Legacy to be held accountable.”
When looking for funeral services, check for a local address, phone number and state license.
State regulators pointed out that there are multiple reputable funeral and cremation service providers with the word “Legacy” or “Heritage” in their business name. Consumers can look up and search for licensed businesses in Florida’s funeral services industry here.
To file a complaint, visit the website for the state's Division of Funeral, Cemetery, and Consumer Services.