CITRUS COUNTY, Fla. — A U.S. Navy veteran was cremated after a man falsely claiming to be his nephew signed off on his cremation and death certificate, the I-Team uncovered.
Navy veteran Robert Walaconis of Hernando, Florida died June 5, 2018 at 71 years old.
His son and daughter said they found out months later.
They claim items were missing from their father’s home – including a gun collection – and told the I-Team they were shocked when they discovered his death certificate listed a nephew named Todd Smith.
But Walaconis doesn’t have a nephew, according to his son, Michael.
“We went to the health records office and we saw a name on there, a ‘Todd Smith,’” said Michael. “And I had no idea who that was. My father was an only child.”
The Florida agency overseeing funeral homes and cemeteries has now opened an investigation after I-Team Investigator Kylie McGivern began asking questions about the case.
Robert Walaconis’ bank also confirmed to the I-Team it has opened a fraud investigation into why someone changed the contact information for the phone number and address on his account.
How could this happen?
Michael said that fake nephew also made decisions against his father's wishes.
“He wanted to be buried in Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania,” said Michael. “I can’t believe this could happen to someone.”
The I-Team wanted to know the same thing.
Mark Downing, the owner of Downing Funeral Home, said he took Todd Smith at his word when he signed off on Robert Walaconis’ cremation.
“Todd is the nephew – that’s the paperwork we’re given,” said Downing. “He should’ve told us that there was a son and daughter.”
Florida statute gives close family members priority over funeral decisions.
Downing said he has performed online searches on Facebook and used other tools to search for surviving family members, but in this case, Downing said he had no idea Robert Walaconis had children.
When asked if he requested identification from Smith, Downing said, “The identification came from Todd from hospice, the hospitals and everything else that he was a nephew.”
Hospice: Nephew sought locksmith to open locked chest
Robert Walaconis died after a short time at HPH Hospice in Brooksville, Florida, the I-Team confirmed.
A spokesperson for the parent company of that facility agreed to an on-camera interview and then later declined, emailing in a statement that the facility follows all federal rules, which don’t require it to question “properly executed forms.”
The I-Team obtained the forms the hospice facility sent the funeral home. On one form, a hospice nurse wrote they called his nephew, Todd Smith, who was having a locksmith open Walaconis’ “locked chest file to find info concerning finances.”
The nurse also wrote Walaconis had not been in contact with his children for 20 years.
But Michael and his sister told the I-Team that’s not true. The siblings said they spoke to their father on the phone from time to time. They also provided emails they traded with him and retirement fund documents Robert signed, naming his children as beneficiaries.
Michael admits he and his father had a troubled relationship.
“He was a very good businessman and was a very good citizen,” said Michael. “But he wasn’t the best at being a father, so, through the years I wanted to tell him that I forgive him for that… And I didn’t get that.”
As his daughter’s college graduation approached, Michael said he reached out to his dad.
“We tried to call. The phone was disconnected,” said Michael. “We thought he was just trying to get some space, which he did over the years. If he didn’t want to talk to you – he wouldn’t.”
“I called to do a health and welfare check on him and we found that he had passed several months before,” said Michael.
Claims of missing guns
Michael and his sister immediately drove from Pennsylvania to their father’s home in Hernando, Florida.
“We walked into trash, all his financial records poured all over – that was the only thing that was out,” said Michael.
Michael said some of his father’s belongings were gone and his guns were missing.
“He collected antique guns. The last time I saw, he had well over 20 valuable guns,” said Michael.
Michael and his sister called the Citrus County Sheriff’s Office, which never opened an investigation into the claims of missing guns. That’s because Walaconis’ children didn’t know the serial numbers of their father’s firearms, according to a spokesman for the sheriff’s office.
“If we had a list, serial numbers or anything that would have actually said, ‘Yes, this object is missing,’ we could research it,” said Special Operations Sgt. Lee Carey.
According to the report by the responding deputy, he asked Smith if he had written permission from Walaconis to take anything from the home.
“…he advised no, but the only things he took was a bed, a chair and a flat screen television,” the deputy wrote in his report.
When asked if Smith’s response raised any red flags for law enforcement, Lee said, “At this point, we weren’t able to determine who the property belonged to, so it becomes a civil matter, that the family must go to the court system, through probate, to determine.”
Todd Smith’s side of the story
The I-Team reached out to Todd Smith, who agreed to an on-camera interview and said he was close with Walaconis.
“I mean he was family to us. He really was,” said Smith. “He was at all our family dinners, his birthday – we celebrated with him, everything.”
The I-Team asked Smith to provide photos, texts or emails that would back up his story, but he did not provide any.
“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,” said Smith. “His kids weren’t here for the last six and a half 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.”
When asked why he said he was Robert’s nephew, Todd said, “I didn’t say that. He is the one who told the nurse at the hospital that I was his nephew.”
I-Team Investigator Kylie McGivern asked Smith why he never corrected anyone and signed documents naming him as the nephew, including his death certificate.
Smith didn’t directly answer that question but said, “I tried to get a hold of his family.”
Smith also told the I-Team he didn’t know anything about the claims of missing guns.
When asked why people should trust him, Smith said, “I’m a trustworthy person. I mean I did nothing wrong. I don’t think I did anything wrong.”
Finally, a funeral with military honors
Smith admitted he never picked up Robert Walaconis’ ashes from the funeral home.
His son, Michael, tracked down his father’s remains 10 months later and finally laid him to rest in a funeral in Pennsylvania – complete with military funeral honors.
“I’m trying to do the right thing and basically make sure this doesn’t happen to other people,” said Michael.
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.
HPH Hospice and Chapters Health System released the following statement:
“HPH Hospice, as an affiliate of Chapters Health System, is always guided by the rules and regulations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which is designed to protect patients' medical records and other health information provided to health plans, doctors, hospitals and other healthcare providers. In addition, we follow the applicable Florida State Statute by honoring the Florida State Proxy for any necessary signatures with regard to care. There is nothing in the Federal Medicare Conditions of Participations (COPs) that would warrant further due diligence in determining next of kin when a healthcare provider is presented with properly executed forms.
Sometimes healthcare decisions are made for us when we become incapacitated — a result of suffering a debilitating stroke, developing dementia or any other chronic disease. We encourage everyone in the community to take the time to have thoughtful conversations about your healthcare wishes and/or write them down as an advanced medical directive, which can include a living will, a healthcare surrogate designation and an anatomical donation.
HPH Hospice has always provided the highest quality care to our patients. We remain committed to offering compassionate hospice and palliative care to the patients and families we are privileged to serve.”
This story came from a tip. If you have something you’d like the I-Team to investigate, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 1-866-428-NEWS.