It was an emotional Valentine’s Day reunion for a Chicago-area mother who had been estranged from her father for 25 years.
"I'm happy he is home,” said Tracy Colantonio, 31. “I haven't been with my dad since I was 6.''
But the reunion was bittersweet because all she has left of her father are his remains. A Good Samaritan delivered his ashes to her home after he found them discarded in an alleyway in a Chicago suburb.
The unusual discovery was made last month by Charles Gustin, who was visiting a friend and noticed the box dumped next to a pile of garbage in Rockford, a city about 65 miles northwest of Chicago.
Gustin walked over and found a small box containing the cremated remains of Anthony L. Colantonio inside a plastic bag, along with a death certificate.
"I couldn't believe what I saw,'' said Gustin, 52, a Chrysler parts supplier. “Who would do this?"
The former U.S. Marine, who goes by the name Mike, immediately began to pray for the dead stranger.
"A sense of peace was going through my body. It was like he was saying 'thank you' for finding him,” he told Fox News. “It was the warmest feeling I ever had.''
The next day, he noticed sanitation workers had refused to pick up the box, so he called police. But they said they couldn't help. The funeral home that handled private cremation arrangements for Colantonio when he died said it would take care of his ashes.
Nathan Harvey, funeral director at Christenson Funeral Home in Rockford, said Colantonio died of lung cancer on October 3, 2014 and he handled the private memorial service for the retired steel cutter. He handed over Colantonio's cremated remains to his third wife after the service. She was his only listed next of kin, according to Harvey.
"His wife was the only person at his funeral service. She died about a year later,'' Harvey said. "Unfortunately, it's not unheard of that people find something like this. Sometimes people just don't know what to do with them. It's possible his wife left them behind in her apartment when she died, and maybe someone else moved in and didn't know what to do, so they threw them out.''
Gustin, resolute and undeterred, decided to resolve the matter himself.
"I didn't want to take the chance he would be discarded again,'' said Gustin, who took the box home and placed his childhood Bible on top of it. “I didn't want him to be forgotten again. I wanted him to have dignity.''
Within a few days, through careful sleuthing, Gustin managed to track down Colantonio's daughter on Facebook. Tracy Colantonio, of nearby Belvidere, said she was dumbfounded when she saw the message on Facebook.
"Omg. Can I have them?'' Colantonio responded to Gustin when she learned of her dad's remains. "I haven't seen my dad in so long. I don't even know how he died.''
She said it was so fitting to receive the message on Valentine’s Day.
"This is the greatest gift I've gotten,'' she told Fox News.
Colantonio said she lost touch with her dad when she was 6, after her parents divorced and he moved out of town. By chance, she briefly ran into him when she was 21 and she was with her then-6-year-old son, Sonny.
She remembered her dad was happy to meet his first grandchild and told her something she will never forget: "I love you, no matter what has happened.''
Her fondest memories of her dad, a former factory worker, were that as a child he loved to take her to the park and camping.
“He made my day,'' she said. “It makes me happy that I can have my dad close to me. It's amazing. Stuff like this just doesn't happen.''
She found a special place for her dad's urn, placing him right next to her mother's.
"I feel complete. I have him and my mom with me now," she said.
Colantonio said she has no idea who dumped her father's remains.
"Whoever left my dad's remains obviously doesn't have a heart like Mike,” she said. “Thank you for not only giving me the chance to be around my father, but also for giving my children the chance to be around their grandfather.''
Gustin, the father of a 21-year-old son, brushed off his good deed, saying he was just doing what anyone else would do.
“Nobody deserves to be thrown out in the trash like that,” he said. “I may not be able to speak to somebody on the other side, but at least I helped him get home."
Angela Mosconi is a freelance reporter/TV producer based
in New York City. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.