LOS ANGELES – It was quite a send-off for Jim Davis, or so the people paying his funeral bills were led to believe.
They were told Davis was laid to rest at Abbey Memorial Park in Compton after being placed in an ornate, top-of-the-line casket lined with elaborate floral arrangements. Altogether, the bill to bury Davis at the palm-lined cemetery came to nearly $31,000.
But there was a problem: There was no Jim Davis. He was dreamed up by a group of scam artists, authorities say.
And prosecutors say the coffin that was lowered into the ground was made out of cheap plywood or cardboard, filled with either rocks or butchered meat and animal bones, apparently to convince those who handled it that there was a body inside.
Faye Shilling, 60, and Jean Crump, 67, were indicted last week on federal charges that they scammed insurance companies and funeral-related businesses out of as much as $1 million by taking out policies on fictitious people and then staging their funerals.
Two other women previously pleaded guilty in the case. The indictment lists just two fabricated deaths, but authorities said there may have been as many as seven.
The participants went so far as to file phony death certificates, and bought a $3,354 burial plot for "Jim Davis," investigators said. Davis was the only one "buried." The others were supposedly cremated, evidently because that was easier to pull off.
"The allegations, if true, are quite shocking," federal prosecutor Anthony Montero said Monday after Shilling and Crump pleaded not guilty to fraud. "It does demonstrate an enormous level of deception and a commitment to hide their fraud."
The women were freed on $10,000 bail. In a telephone interview with The Associated Press, Shilling said: "I am hurt, just hearing things that I know are not true. Someone is trying to destroy me, but why?"
The prosecutor said a small group of mourners attended Davis' graveside service in 2006, but he would not say who they were. He said he did not know whether a clergyman officiated or anyone gave a eulogy.
The scheme began coming apart several weeks after the funeral, when an insurance investigator began snooping around, the prosecutor said. He said the participants panicked and dug up the coffin, claiming later that they had had Davis' remains cremated and scattered at sea.
Lydia Eileen Pearce, 37, owner of the Steward-Pearce Mortuary in Long Beach, and Barbara Lynn, 54, a notary, previously pleaded guilty to fraud and face as much as 20 years in prison when sentenced. Montero said more arrests are possible.
He said the women used their knowledge of the insurance and funeral industries to pull off the ruse.
"How else are you going to get a coffin buried with no body in there?" the prosecutor asked.
As a phlebotomist, Shilling drew blood from people applying for insurance, Montero said, which gave her expertise in how such policies are set up and paid out. Crump worked in a now-defunct Long Beach mortuary.
In the case of "Jim Davis," prosecutors said the women persuaded two insurance companies to issue policies on his life worth a total of $700,000. A doctor was also allegedly offered $50,000 to create a fake medical history for him. But the prosecutor would not say whether the doctor took the money.
After Davis supposedly died, prosecutors said, the women persuaded two companies, which pay the upfront costs of funerals in exchange for a fee and reimbursement later, to cover grossly inflated funeral costs.
The case surprised many in the funeral industry.
National Funeral Directors Association spokeswoman Jessica Koth said that although there are reports from time to time of scams involving funeral workers skimming from trust funds, she had never heard of an entire fake funeral.
Bernadette Palombo, a professor at Louisiana State University who wrote a paper on the growth of fraud in the funeral industry, said she, too, had never heard of such an elaborate scheme.
"This is certainly creative," she said.