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I-Team investigation into veteran's cremation by a fake nephew prompts calls for change

Attorney: 'I can understand how it could easily happen'
Posted at 9:05 PM, Jul 16, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-16 21:30:57-04

TAMPA, Fla. -- Attorneys and lawmakers are weighing in after the I-Team discovered a fake nephew signed off on a veteran's death certificate and cremation without the family's knowledge.

I-Team Investigator Kylie McGivern found a gap in state law that allowed it to happen. Now, attorneys and lawmakers are calling for more checks and balances to assure the person signing off on a cremation is who they say they are.

Veteran Michael Walaconis' son, Michael, told the I-Team, "We went to the health records office and we saw a name on there, a 'Todd Smith.' And I had no idea who that was and my father was an only child."

Michael said he admittedly had a troubled relationship with his father over the years, but was shocked that he didn't learn of his passing until months later, after a stranger had authorized his cremation.

"I can't believe this could happen to someone," said Walaconis. "I'm trying to do the right thing and basically make sure this doesn't happen to other people."

FULL INVESTIGATION: State launches investigation after fake nephew cremates veteran

The I-Team took that concern to Tampa attorney Derek Alvarez, who handles probate and guardianship cases.

Alvarez is not representing anyone involved in the case of Robert Walaconis.

“After you did your investigation to determine that the person who gave this authority was not the person who should have been giving the authority, you start looking back and thinking, 'wow.' You know, while I haven’t seen that before, I can understand how it could easily happen. So concerning," Alvarez said, based on current Florida law.

That's because under state law, a legally authorized person must sign off on a cremation. The priority starts with a spouse, then goes to an adult child, and so on.

But really, Alvarez said, there's nothing written to check if someone is who they say they are.

"The question becomes - what's the duty there. To what extent do you go to determine if that's the authorized person or not," said Alvarez. “It’s concerning because – absent of pursuing a cause of action, after this happens, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of recourse."

Alvarez told the I-Team this may be a case of tortious interference with the disposition of a body. The elements are described as the following:

  1. Defendant unlawfully interfered with dead body including interference with burial, sepulcher, or other disposition of the dead body;
  2. Defendant’s conduct was extreme and outrageous so as to imply malice;
  3. A surviving relative suffered emotional distress as a result.

“Malice” is defined as the intention or desire to do evil; ill will.

Rep. Mike Beltran (R-Lithia) told the I-Team he wants to see the results of an ongoing state investigation into the funeral home, launched after the I-Team started asking questions, before determining what changes may need to be made.

"We have to do something to make sure these types of incidents aren’t occurring and I think in order to do that we have to figure out what happened and why. And then we'll figure out where the fix is," said Rep. Beltran.

Todd Smith wouldn't say why he signed off as a nephew after Robert's passing, but said he took care of him and tried to get a hold of the veteran's family.

“I was the one that was there to wipe his butt when he had an accident, when he was sick and couldn’t get up out of bed. His kids weren’t here for the last 6.5 years. And I’m not trying to make them out to be bad people or anything, but it happened. And I’m sorry that it happened this way. I didn’t want to have to make these decisions," Smith told the I-Team.

Robert's children told the I-Team they were never contacted.

“I think an extra level of verification, some extra duty upon the funeral home or director or just to make that extra effort to ensure that we’re dealing with who we’re dealing with. Because what happened here is, you know, catastrophic for the son and daughter," said Alvarez.

In an emailed statement, Rep. Ralph Massullo (R-Lecanto) wrote:

“I do believe that if there isn't clear documentation of next of kin's identity in a will or similar document who has authority to make those sorts of decisions, then it is incumbent on the coroner's office/medical examiner's office to determine appropriate disposition of the deceased. I believe if proper protocols were not followed, then those responsible for whatever breakdown may have occurred in this instance should be held liable. In some rare instances, verification of relations or those who have authority may not be possible given our current laws. I would encourage everyone to have a simple will with their wishes clearly expressed.”

A fraud investigation launched by Robert's bank also remains ongoing tonight, after contact information was changed on the veteran's account.

You can search license and disciplinary information, funeral or cemetery services as well as find directions for how file a complaint on the state’s website.

This story came from a tip. If you have something you’d like the I-Team to investigate, email or call 1-866-428-NEWS.

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