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North Texas woman says cremation company held her mother's body hostage

North Texas woman says cremation company held her mother's body hostage
North Texas woman says cremation company held her mother's body hostage 06:02

ARLINGTON ( — At 23, Sierra Simmons had not given much thought to funeral planning. So when her mother died of breast cancer at home, she and her younger brother did what a lot of us would do: she went online to start making preparations.

"I Googled 'cremation services in Arlington,' or 'cremations near me' or something like that," Simmons said. "And when you go to their website, it says 'Arlington, Texas.'"

The website for Legacy Cremation Services looked local, and with prices as low as $695, it seemed like the most affordable option, too. Hours after Simmons called, a man in a van came to her apartment and picked up the body. The next day, she received an invoice for $1,842.30.

Simmons called the company to ask why the price was nearly triple what she expected. "I asked him, 'OK, well what's $695? It says $695 on the website,'" Simmons recalled. "And he says, 'It says from $695.' And I said, 'OK, well what's the most basic one? That's what we want. If it says from $695, we want whatever $695 is.' And he said, 'Well, no, that's not our price.'"

The invoice she received from Legacy included:

  • A direct cremation for $895
  • A $145 transportation fee
  • A $195 crematory fee
  • An alternative cremation container fee of $175

According to Simmons, she told the company she would pay the transportation fee, but another funeral home would handle the cremation. She says the man told her she would have to pay $495 before Legacy would release the remains. When she told him she could not afford that, Simmons says she was told, 'I'm sure you can come up with it—somebody can come up with it."

While Simmons is not sure who she spoke with on the phone, Legacy Cremation Services is owned by a man named Joseph Damiano. His family has a long history in the cremation business. In the early 2000s, Damiano pleaded guilty to operation without a funeral license in Florida. A year later, his father pleaded no contest to illegally running a crematory.

Eventually, the father and son moved their operations online, opening Legacy Cremation Services and Heritage Cremation Provider. While the websites appear to be based in many cities and states, the companies are actually just brokers, hiring local funeral providers to perform the work.

The practice has led to a number of complaints over the years. At least 10 states, including Texas, have either fined the companies or suspended their licenses.

Last year, the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice accused Damiano of:

  • Falsely claiming online that his companies were local
  • Charging more than the prices posted
  • Holding remains hostage

In April, a federal court ordered Damiano to pay a $275,000 fine and imposted strict rules about transparency and pricing. None of it seems to have led to changes in his business model.

James White is the executive director of the Texas Funeral Service Commission. He says the TFSC sent Damiano a "cease and desist" letter in 2021, banning him from doing funeral business in Texas. White says whoever is working with Damiano now is risking their own livelihood. 

"Obviously, they know if you're in a funeral home or association with a funeral home, doing funeral directing and embalming operations, you need to be licensed in Texas," said White. "So they do put themselves potentially in a precarious situation."

When the I-Team interviewed Simmons, she was not sure where her mother's body was located because, according to her, Legacy was not returning her calls. She had looked through the paperwork and could only find an address in Colorado and the name and address of a crematory in Fort Worth. 

The I-Team visited that crematory and spoke with the president, who said he no longer did business with Legacy and did not have Simmons' mother's remains.

A woman named Melissa called the I-Team, claiming to speak on behalf of Legacy Cremation Services, but she would not share her last name or her position at the company, calling that information "irrelevant." 

She also refused to give CBS News Texas a business address, saying Legacy was located "in the area." Eventually, she said that Legacy contracts with a provider in Weatherford called Compassionate Carriage and Preparation Services.

Simmons called that business and was told that her mother's remains were there, but she owed $90 in storage fees. Days later, Compassionate Carriage and Preparation Services agreed to waive the charges and allow another company to pick up the body.

In a phone call, the I-Team asked a woman at Compassionate Carriage and Preparation Services why she was working with an unlicensed broker. She told us Legacy is a national company and "that's how it works." She later admitted she didn't know if it was legal to contract with them.

Legacy's websites continue to advertise low rates and local ties, despite state and federal efforts to change that practice.

According to the TFSC, you can find legitimate funeral or cremation companies online, but you should always make arrangements in person, because licensed facilities are required to give you certain paperwork about pricing and your rights.

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