Christopher Miller, a native of Maryland with a passion for international travel, attended Catholic University in Peru and settled in a remote part of the developing South American country to help treat AIDS patients.
But since the troubled 23-year-old took his own life in Mancora Beach on June 10, a Fox News investigation shows, Miller’s grieving mother has struggled unsuccessfully for more than three weeks to get her son’s remains repatriated to the United States and has faced growing demands for money – now totaling tens of thousands of dollars – from Peruvian government officials and funeral directors.
“I can’t even get my kid back,” sobbed Larissa Puryear, a 47-year-old single mother of four, in an emotional phone interview.
“This has been a heart-shattering experience for us all, my mother especially,” added Lauren Miller, Larissa’s eldest daughter, in an email to Fox News.
“This has been a heart shattering experience for us all, my mother especially.”
The Middletown, Md., family shared extensive email correspondence with its elected representatives, State Department officials, Peruvian government figures and funeral directors, all of which depict a grieving mother caught in an international labyrinth with few individuals or institutions rushing to her aid.
While navigating that labyrinth, Puryear started a GoFundMe campaign to raise funds for the repatriation and burial of Christopher’s body, which Peruvian officials say remains under refrigeration, in police custody, at a compounding cost that is updated in matter-of-fact emails sent to his mother every few days.
In the days before Christopher’s American boyfriend, Donald Dagenhart, found his lover’s body hanging in Mancora Beach, more than 700 miles from the capital city of Lima, Miller had “called and texted several friends and discussed that he was struggling,” his sister Lauren said. Miller also posted a suicide note on his Facebook page. At the time of his death, he had been invited to participate in an internship at a Peruvian hospital that serviced AIDS patients, according to his aunt, Beth Sworobuk of Washington, D.C.
Shortly after arriving on the scene, the family said, officers with the Peruvian Civil Guard took possession of Miller’s body – Dagenhart has told the family he saw the corpse thrown into the back of a truck – and the personal effects of the deceased: a wallet, three cellphones, Miller’s passport, identification and $500, all of which has subsequently disappeared (“I call that stealing,” Sworobuk said). Dagenhart also was detained for several days.
Initially, Puryear had difficulty getting anyone in a position of authority to deal with her. “Neither the U.S. Embassy nor the funeral home would contact my mother until she contacted [Senator] Barbara Mikulski's office and they reached out to the State Department,” Lauren Miller told Fox News.
At that point, the correspondence shows the U.S. Embassy in Lima conveyed its sympathies to Puryear and provided her with links to local funeral homes. One of them quoted her a price of $5,500 to collect Christopher’s body, transport it to Lima, cremate it, and ship the ashes back to Maryland. Puryear paid the money with a bank wire, for which she was able to provide the receipt.
The Peruvian government then requested that Puryear provide written authorization for cremation along with satisfactory identification for herself. This, too, Puryear – working in tandem with the U.S. Embassy – swiftly provided. At that point, all concerned parties, including the U.S. government, expected that the funeral home would comply and the tragic affair would be resolved swiftly, the Miller family left simply to mourn their agonizing loss.
Documents reveal that a State Department official named Gabriel L. Hurst, vice consul of the U.S. Embassy in Lima, worked diligently to see to it that Miller’s wish for his remains to be cremated would be honored, but that Hurst grew increasingly frustrated with roadblocks being put up by local Peruvian government officials, which Hurst described to others as unprecedented in his experience.
Gustavo Garay, a regional government figure in Peru whose title is “the fiscal” – after receiving Puryear’s authorization for cremation and identification through the U.S. Embassy in Lima – abruptly reversed course. He denied the authenticity of Puryear’s paperwork and declined her request for cremation. Garay told the U.S. Embassy that authorities were now opening an investigation into whether Miller’s death had been a homicide, “despite this OBVIOUSLY being a suicide,” as Lauren Miller put it in an email to Fox News.
Hurst arranged for influential local figures to speak with Garay but to no avail. Writing on his official State Department email account, Hurst told Miller’s mother that Garay “became illogically intransigent to the funeral home request to authorize Christopher’s incineration…We have never seen this level of stringent opposition from a regional fiscal before.” Hurst also complained about the “cumbersome and irrational bureaucracy” in Peru, which he recognized had become “obstinate” in its defiance of Puryear’s wishes and applicable laws.
On June 22, after being contacted by the family, Fox News raised the matter at the State Department press briefing. “We can confirm that Christopher Miller died in Piura, Peru,” spokesman John Kirby said, extending condolences. “We’re offering the family all appropriate consular assistance to help repatriate Mr. Miller’s remains to the United States in accordance with the family’s wishes and international and local law and regulations.”
Contacted by Fox News, the Peruvian Embassy in Washington expressed alarm about the matter, promised to make its own inquiries, and also promised to convey the results of those inquiries back to the reporter pressing the issue. Instead, the embassy has gone dark for long stretches, replying only sporadically to multiple follow-up messages left by telephone and email.
Embassy press officer Rodolfo Perriero told Fox News he was “very concerned” about the case, and – when provided Puryear’s contact information by a reporter – left her a voice mail message on June 29, nearly three weeks after her son’s death, to express condolences. Perreiro told Fox News he had spoken to a regional state prosecutor in Peru but could offer no explanation about the unprecedented rulings that regional authorities had made in the case, nor about what had happened to Miller’s personal belongings.
Throughout the ordeal, while Puryear and her children mourned their son and brother and held memorial services in his absence, there came demands for more money. Some of them were polite – if cold and unemotional in their approach to a grieving mother – and some were bizarre and frightening to the Miller family.
“Hi..Have you any dead son in Peru?” began one, sent from a Spanish-language Hotmail account and riddled with grammatical errors. “we want to have more information about your son.. pictures, documents, passaport.” Gabriel Hurst, the vice consul at the American Embassy in Lima, advised Puryear to ignore that email.
Still other communications from Peru, however, casually requested thousands of dollars in additional funds from Puryear during her time of sorrow. The money was sought both to pay for ongoing refrigeration costs after Miller’s body had been transported to Lima, and for the cost of shipping the corpse back to Maryland.
Peruvian officials could not provide any satisfactory answer to questions posed by Fox News as to why, if the body could not be cremated because it was needed for a homicide investigation, Peruvian authorities were nonetheless content to ship the corpse almost 3,600 miles to northern Maryland. Nor could they explain why the fiscal in Peru rejected the authenticity of Puryear’s paperwork after local authorities had already cleared the way for her to make the payment of $5,500 for cremation, and that payment had been accepted.
On June 27, seventeen days after her son’s death, Puryear received an email from one Jorge Mandujano, one of the funeral directors involved, that began: “Sorry about the email you just recieved [sic] in Spanish. Here is the translation.” It went on to say: “We don't know how long the investigation will be….The fiscal's investigation is based on reports he gets from the coroner's lab (toxicological tests, etc). and these tests results can take up to a couple months.”
The email cited a daily refrigeration cost for Miller’s corpse of $17 a day, with expenses accrued to that date of $3,100. Puryear was offered two options, the first of which was to fly down to Peru and identify her son’s body, then have the corpse shipped back to Maryland at an additional cost of $2,500. “There is another option,” Mandujano advised, “[and] that is temporary burial. We can burry [sic] the remains now and in a year they can be exhumed and cremated. The cost of the temporary burial is $1,150.” He then added: “I would also take this opportunity to ask if you had had the chance to finalize payment for our services.”
By June 30, Charlie Jarrett, another State Department official based in Lima, emailed Puryear not with the news she had hoped to hear – that U.S. officials had successfully prevailed on Garay, the fiscal, to terminate the homicide investigation and perform the cremation for which she had already paid close to $6,000 – but rather to serve, in effect, as a collection agent of sorts.
“We’d like to follow-up,” Jarrett wrote on his official State Department email account, “to be sure you have clearly understood all of the options the funeral home is presenting to you at this time.”
U.S. officials said that once Fox News began making inquiries, the matter had been “elevated” in importance, with American diplomats pressing the Peruvian Embassy in Washington, as well as the funeral home, to explore the possibility of the home extending “subsidies” to the Puryear family. “There’s lots of heat on this now,” said one senior State Department official based in Washington, noting that the case was on the radar of the U.S. ambassador to Peru, Brian A. Nichols.
A Rhode Island native and career Foreign Service officer, Nichols has extensive experience as a diplomat and counter-narcotics official in Peru and elsewhere in Latin America.
But talk of Nichols’ involvement began and ended last Saturday, and aside from Jarrett’s June 30 email – prodding Puryear to pay the funeral home – the intervening days have seen virtually no action from either the American or Peruvian sides.
“This is very stressful for me, [for Christopher’s] sisters, brothers, grandparents, friends, cousins,” Puryear told Fox News in emails sent to a reporter over the last two days.
“I'm not sure how much longer we can go through this….Everyone is falling apart.”