WASHINGTON - The case against a Northwest D.C. funeral home accused of defrauding grieving families is moving forward. On Wednesday, a judge granted a temporary restraining order against Austin Royster Funeral Home as more victims come forward.
The restraining order means the funeral home is barred from providing funeral services or take money from any potential clients.
The Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia alleges that Chief Operating Officer Jamelle Royster and Managing Funeral Director James Agee have been operating Austin Royster Funeral Home without the proper licenses for more than a year.
Two licenses are required to operate a funeral home – a business license and a funeral establishment license.
The DC Board of Funeral Directors also alleges Royster acted in a funeral director capacity without the proper license for that position.
In addition, the lawsuit cites multiple instances where Royster reportedly convinced people to sign over their loved one’s life insurance checks, which were more than funeral costs, promising to return the excess to the client. In one case, a family lost $47,000.
Since the news broke Monday, the Attorney General’s Office has received dozens of calls from potential victims.
“It’s not right,” said Eric Chesley, speaking exclusively to FOX 5. “It’s not right at all.”
Chesley has been trying to get a hold of the funeral home to pick up his brother’s remains and death certificate.
“I don’t know who has them now,” he added. “I’m very hurt. Very, very hurt.”
Mary Johnson is also waiting for her father’s death certificate, a month and a half after his passing.
“[Jamelle] said hospice is holding up the paperwork,” she explained. “I called hospice and found out they are not needed at all. They told me I need to contact her.”
She is also owed money back from the funeral home. Johnson said Royster advised her to sign over her father’s life insurance check to cover the cost of the wake. Royster then allegedly promised to reimburse Johnson the excess funds, which came to about $1,700. Johnson still has not seen the money.
“It’s cruel to prey on people when they are vulnerable and grieving,” said Johnson. “How could someone do that?”
In another case cited in the 118-page lawsuit, Quantella Gregory said she requested that her deceased grandmother be properly cleansed and prepared by Muslim women as dictated by Muslim tradition. Gregory alleges Royster then embalmed her grandmother without permission. When Gregory learned her grandmother’s death certificate was still not available a month later, Royster told her “not to worry because her grandmother was still in the freezer."
According to the Attorney General’s Office, authorities have seized more than 100 cremains and bodies from the funeral home. They are still investigating how many of those apply to this case.
Wednesday’s temporary restraining order also grants a freeze of Royster and Agee’s assets.
The Attorney General’s Office is seeking restitution of money owed to clients as well as help getting death certificates for the deceased.
FOX 5 has reached out to Royster on multiple occasions. Her phone number has been disconnected and she declined to come to the door at her home.
A hearing for the case is scheduled for Dec. 19.
Anyone who thinks they may be a victim can call the Consumer Protection Hotline at 202-442-9828.
To avoid becoming a victim, the Attorney General’s Office is advising people contact the DC Funeral Board to make sure their chosen funeral home has a license. People can also call the Office of the Attorney General to find out if they have received any complaints against the funeral home.