BOCA RATON, Fla. – For six years, the family of Robert Nero Sr. thought his ashes sat in an urn on his widow's mantle. But the family recently learned that ashes and a metal disk identifying them as his were found dumped in bushes at a West Palm Beach YWCA and now they don't know what to believe.
Sitting beside the bronze urn in their lawyer's office Tuesday, Nero's widow, Corene, and his daughter, Gloria Nero Rolle, demanded to know if the ashes inside are Nero's or someone else's. They say they haven't gotten answers from Stevens Brothers Funeral Home, which handled the cremation.
"I am sitting here with someone else's ashes and my father's were in the bushes," Rolle said crying, her mother sitting quietly but stoically next to her. "All I want is my father's ashes back and (make it so) whoever these belong to can get their remains."
A man who answered the phone at Stevens Brothers told The Associated Press the Neroes have the proper ashes. He declined to give his name or make further comment.
The state's Division of Funeral, Cemetery and Consumer Services said in a statement Tuesday that it has just learned of the allegations, but added "they are horrifying and we take this very seriously."
Rolle and the family's attorney, Greg Francis, said after Nero, a farmworker, died at 73 in 2013, his son, Robert Nero Jr., hired Stevens Brothers to arrange his cremation. Rolle said her brother then spent weeks getting the ashes back from the mortuary, going there almost daily before he finally received them. They were placed in Corene Nero's home. The son died the following year and was buried by Stevens Brothers, his sister said.
The mystery began March 25 when a West Palm Beach YWCA worker, Scott Manochi, found piles of ashes and two metal identification discs from a crematorium as he cleared brush along a fence. He called police.
According to a police report, officers contacted the crematorium, which said its records showed one set of ashes belonged to Nero and the other to Mary Brown, who died in 2009. Her family has not been located. The crematorium told officers it had handled their bodies for Stevens Brothers, which had picked up the ashes shortly after the deaths.
Officers called Stevens Brothers, which sent employee Willie Watts to collect the ashes from the bushes. Police learned Watts also does grounds work for the YWCA.
When an AP reporter asked Watts by phone Tuesday about the ashes, he replied, "I don't know nothing about it." When read the police report, Watts laughed and declined to comment.
Miami Dade College mortuary science professor Joseph Finocchiaro said it's unlikely the ashes could have been outdoors for long — rain and wind would have scattered them.
West Palm Beach Sgt. David Lefont said investigators don't believe a crime was committed — Florida law doesn't prohibit the dumping of ashes on private property.
The Neros learned about the ashes' discovery when contacted by local television stations. Rolle said she at first refused to believe that the YWCA ashes could be her father's. But as the likely reality set in, she broke down.
"I went and sat down for a couple hours until I could get myself together," Rolle said.
Finocchiaro said when a funeral home picks up a body, a wristband is attached and every time the body changes hands the accompanying paperwork is supposed to be checked to make sure the identification matches. Redundant identification is often also attached to the coffin or other container.
At the crematorium, a metal disk like the one found with the ashes is created, he said. That disk accompanies the ashes through every step from the crematorium to the mortuary to the family, he said.
"From start to finish, you should be able to draw a line all the way back," he said.
He said the cremation process almost always destroys the body's DNA, so attempting to identify the cremains in the Nero family's urn is an extreme longshot.
Rolle said she understands she'll probably never know for sure what happened to her father, but she needs to try.
"We all love him and we are doing everything we can to get him back," Rolle said.
This version corrects the spelling of Lefont.