DETROIT – The Wayne County Morgue was forced to dig up the body of a person who was identified as a woman at the time of burial because that woman is actually alive and well. The body has since been identified as a missing man.
Over the past several months, the Local 4 Defenders have uncovered a number of problems at the Wayne County Morgue. A manhunt for an accused murderer ended when police learned that person’s body had been at the morgue the entire time. In another case, a mother said her daughter’s body was delivered to a funeral home with maggots in her mouth. Another family said they weren’t notified about their loved one’s body being at the morgue for 17 months.
The Defenders have been exposing these mistakes in the hope that it will bring change, hold people accountable and get some answers for affected families.
Now, Defender Karen Drew has learned about another mistake: A body was buried, and the person identified as a woman. But in reality, it was a man, and the woman is alive and well.
In 2013, there was a dig at Knollwood Memorial Park in Canton Township that many authorities don’t want to talk about. A body was dug up as part of case No. 11-851, but why was an exhumation needed?
Two years earlier, in 2011, a tip to Crime Stoppers led police to a lot in the 16000 block of Hazelton Street on Detroit’s west side. At the time, there was a house on the lot, and inside, police found a decomposing body, according to records.
The report showed there were “no signs of trauma or foul play.”
Documents obtained by the Defenders show that originally, the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office thought the body was that of a female, but wrote that “identification was very difficult.”
Later, it became clear the medical examiner didn’t conduct proper testing of the remains. The Defenders also learned that the body was buried at Knollwood Memorial Park as “unclaimed” under the name of Karen Bennett.
A woman named Karen Bennett used to live at the home on Hazelton Street where the body was found. But a couple years later, a family searching for their brother, Steven Wetter, came back to Hazelton Street, where he was known to hang out, according to officials.
People in the neighborhood told the family that they knew Wetter and that he used to live in the house where the body was found. They said they hadn’t seen him in years but told the family about the body.
Michigan State Police Detective Sgt. Sarah Krebs started to investigate the case, and it didn’t take long for her to figure out the mystery. She said she found Bennett, who was “apparently alive and well, living in Florida.”
So who could be in the grave? Wayne County was forced to exhume the body at taxpayers’ expense, while officials kept the mistake quiet.
The Local 4 Defenders received a tip about the case and worked for months, obtaining records such as a 2013 email from the morgue’s chief investigator, Albert Samuels. He wrote, “This is bad news. This body has been buried, and as a woman. It was turned into (the medical examiner) for a county burial and we buried it.”
A flurry of emails went back and forth, including one that said the information was not intended to be released to the media because the details would be damaging to the morgue.
In another email, Krebs stated, “We were both shaking our heads. They are going to have to exhume him.”
The body was exhumed in October 2013. After the medical examiner did proper testing, documents show, the body turned out to belong to a man, not a woman. Further testing determined it was Wetter, who had been missing for years, according to records.
The medical examiner, Dr. Carl Schmidt, is keeping quiet about the case and wouldn’t talk to Local 4 about this investigation. The chief operating officer of Wayne County, who oversees the morgue, spoke about how the facility was run under Schmidt’s leadership.
“Well, I will say that you’re right that the buck stops at the top and ... he is running that,” Genelle Allen said.
Allen said the county is concerned and disturbed by all the problems that have been uncovered at the morgue.
Michigan Medicine, which gets paid about $6 million per year to run the Wayne County Morgue, issued the following statement:
The body of Steven Wetter was misidentified after his death in 2011, after some critical steps were not taken by morgue officials involved. Many of those steps - including checking dental, radiology and anthropology records – are standard parts of the Wayne County Morgue’s process. Although the misidentification occurred prior to Michigan Medicine operating the morgue, we regret the mistakes made in this case and are committed to maintaining higher standards of care and practice.
We are strongly committed to continuously improving our services, and have made some recent progress:
Created a new position of identification coordinator, interviews underway
Built a prototype of public facing web-based portal to get public participation in helping identify missing persons, currently under review
Launched a project with the U-M College of Engineering to assess morgue systems and procedures
Repaired a backup generator transfer switch and are evaluating replacement refrigeration equipmentMichigan Medicine
While some issues at the morgue happened under the guidance of Michigan Medicine, this one did not.
The case is now closed, but it leaves many with an uneasy feeling about what other mistakes might have been made at Knollwood Memorial Park.
The morgue’s contract with Michigan Medicine expires in September, and the two sides are currently in talks to renew it. An audit of the morgue should be completed in the coming weeks.
Steven Wetter’s family did not want to go on camera to talk about the mixup at the morgue.