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Published: Thursday, 6/11/2009

Late mortician accused of misusing burial funds

BY GARY T. PAKULSKI
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

State regulators are investigating allegations that a popular Toledo funeral director who died suddenly over the Easter weekend misused advance funeral payments made by nearly four dozen customers.

Officials of Ohio s Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors revealed yesterday that they have begun examining the disappearance of $180,000 from a special account overseen by the late J. Jeffrey Fretti.

The account was established to hold preneed funds money for burial goods and services prior to death deposited by 45 customers.

Mr. Fretti operated the J. Jeffrey Fretti Funeral Home at 5045 Sylvania Ave. for 18 years.

John Jack Wanick, lawyer and executor for the Fretti estate, said he notified the state board after discovering the $180,000 was missing. He has sent letters to customers involved suggesting they file claims in Lucas County Probate Court.

The funeral home is being run temporarily by the Deck-Hanneman Funeral Home of Bowling Green until the business and funeral home can be sold, Mr. Wanick said.

We will liquidate the assets and attempt to repay everybody as best we can, he said, adding that he hopes to sell the funeral home within 90 days.

Fretti Fretti
NOT BLADE PHOTO Enlarge

However, the Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors, in a news release yesterday, cautioned that it is possible that there will be no funds available through the estate to compensate these consumers.

Tommie Smith of Toledo, one of the 45 people who received the letter from Mr. Wanick, said he suspected last month that the $6,200 he had paid Mr. Fretti in January had vanished.

Just after [Mr. Fretti] died I had my attorney handle how to get it back, and he said that it doesn t look like there s any money there, said Mr. Smith, whose payment was for future funeral arrangements for his mother, Moline Smith, 96, a resident of a Toledo-area nursing home.

Then I read that he owed $495,000 on the funeral home to Huntington Bank and I figured the money was already gone before I even got the letter, Mr. Smith said. We will file a claim, but it looks like there s nothing there to recover and that we ll never get anything. It s a mess.

Now I ve got to go to another funeral home and pay for it again but probably not all in advance, Mr. Smith added.

Mr. Wanick said it appears that instead of depositing the funds in the special preneeds trust fund required by law, Mr. Fretti diverted the money into an account he used for ordinary business expenses. The state board said it will cooperate with any law enforcement organizations having jurisdiction over this matter.

The 48-year-old funeral director died April 11 in Sarasota, Fla., while visiting his mother with his two sons. He complained of feeling ill earlier in the day and was found unresponsive at his mother s residence.

The cause of death was believed to be heart failure. An autopsy was conducted, but the results are not likely to be available for two more weeks, said Dr. Russell Vega, chief medical examiner in Sarasota County.

Mr. Fretti s death was widely reported on entertainment Web sites because his estranged wife, Tamara, is the sister of actress Katie Holmes.

After Mr. Fretti s death, it was discovered his funeral home was experiencing serious financial strain.

Huntington Bank placed liens for $495,000 against the business and Mr. Fretti in March and April.

Since Mr. Fretti s death, another creditor has filed a lien for $50,000 at the Lucas County Recorder s Office against the funeral home. Mr. Wanick said he is uncertain what led to the funeral home s financial problems.

Not all advance payments made by customers are missing, said Ann Cunningham, executive director of the Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors. However, she said the state has no way to compensate people who have lost advance payments made on funerals.

Contact Gary Pakulski at: gpakulski@theblade.com or 419-724-6082.



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