AUBURN — A worker at a Lewiston funeral home where a dozen rotting bodies were found piled in an unrefrigerated basement testified Thursday that he had asked the business’s owner “many times” to take action.
Michael Bickford said in Androscoggin County Superior Court that he even knocked on the door of Kenneth Kincer’s home when he repeatedly failed to answer calls about growing problems at the Affordable Cremation Solution funeral home on Main Street.
“What did you find when you got to his house?” asked Benjamin Gideon, attorney for the plaintiff in the lawsuit against the company.
“He was drunk,” Bickford said.
A sign on Kincer’s door directed all inquiries to his attorney, Bickford said.
How many days did you see Kincer work in 2021, Gideon asked.
“One, maybe two,” Bickford said.
The business was effectively functioning without a licensed undertaker in 2021, Gideon asked.
“Yes,” said Bickford.
“Did you think that was responsible?” Gideon asked.
Bickford said it was “very common” for clients to be unable to reach Kincer when calling the funeral home.
“I told people he was sick and I kept making excuses because I couldn’t tell them the truth,” Bickford said.
He said he told Kincer “many times” that his absence was a problem for the business.
“It was an ongoing struggle,” he said.
Only Kincer, as a funeral director, was authorized to fill out the necessary paperwork for a cremation and only he could sign a death certificate.
Bickford and one other person were assistants who worked part-time at home but were not licensed undertakers.
He was asked why on May 30, 2021 he continued to pick up bodies, including those of Bruce Wurstle, when he knew they could not be cremated.
“Because[Kincer]kept promising that he would come to work and take care of her,” Bickford said.
Bickford said he told Kincer they couldn’t keep picking up bodies if Kincer wasn’t there to process them and said he thought it was unethical to do so.
Kincer kept promising to come in and take care of her, Bickford said. But “it never happened. He never made it to work.”
If Bickford refused to continue picking up the bodies, Kincer told him “he would find someone else” to do it, Bickford said.
Kincer had told Bickford to tell customers the store had air-conditioned storage rooms, but that was not true, Bickford said, explaining that the bodies were kept in a basement that was naturally cool but not kept cold and not by a mechanical cooling mechanism controlled by a thermostat.
When Bickford told Kincer about the smell emanating from the decomposing bodies during a June 2021 heatwave, Kincer urged him to “open the windows.”
Kincer was called as a witness by Gideon representing Marielle Bischoff-Wurstle, 34, of Falmouth, whose father, Bruce, was picked up from Kincer’s shop on May 30, 2021 and kept in the unrefrigerated basement for two weeks authorities was closed.
Gideon questioned Kincer one-by-one about the funeral home’s customers who had filed complaints with the state as of February 2021.
Kincer was asked if he remembered these customers.
He said he couldn’t remember their names.
“There were so many people there,” he said. “I can’t remember all their names.”
He said he remembered responding to some of the complaints.
Some of the bodies lay in his basement for weeks, some for more than a month.
“That’s totally unacceptable, isn’t it?” Gideon asked.
“Absolutely, yes,” Kincer said.
In April, the Maine Board of Funeral Services filed a complaint against the Lewiston funeral home for its conduct. The Administrator sent a notice to Kincer detailing seven allegations of violations, including accepting payment for services not rendered.
The complaints, which piled up along with the bodies, continued to be accepted by the Affordable Cremation Service but were not sent for cremation.
They were found piled in piles when authorities confiscated them.
In late April 2021, the board sent another warning letter to Kincer, warning him that his business might not work if no funeral home licensee was there to sign the paperwork.
“Right,” Kincer said.
“When ACS picked up Bruce Wurstle, the company hadn’t been able to live up to their responsibilities to their customers for months, right?” asked Gideon.
“Yeah, essentially it had,” Kincer said.
“My personal life has spilled over into my professional life and things have been messed up that should never have happened,” he said.
Before the state closed the Lewiston store and suspended Kincer’s license, the undertaker at another home had found the conditions at Kincer’s store “so despicable” that they notified the state and filed a complaint, Kincer asked?
“I understand that, yes,” Kincer said.
On Thursday, the second day of the civil trial, Bischoff-Wurstle took the witness stand.
She broke into sobs often and described how a link on Facebook to a TV news program told her that the funeral home where her father was supposed to have been cremated had closed, but a dozen decomposing bodies were found in the basement.
“That was my worst nightmare,” she said.
Time seemed to stand still and she didn’t know how to go about her normal routines, she said.
She had googled which part of a body had last decomposed without refrigeration and thought she might need to identify his remains, which the newscast said had been confiscated by the state.
“But I had this image in my head that his face was missing and mice and maggots were flying out,” she said.
The pleasant memories she had of visiting her father on the day he died and appearing at peace, wrapped in a blanket and flanked by stuffed animals, were accompanied by “terrifying” images of his decomposed or missing body been replaced.
Defense attorneys tried to minimize the role Kincer’s business played in Bischoff-Wurstle’s inability to cope with her grief for her father.
The jury viewed video footage of opposing attorneys questioning Dr. Lawrence Amsel, a trauma and grief psychiatrist who diagnosed Bischoff-Wurstle with persistent grief disorder, depression, and anxiety.
Defense attorney James Haddow attempted to challenge Amsel’s diagnoses of depression and anxiety by challenging the score on a self-administered test that Bischoff-Wurstle was meant to complete, in which she answered questions in a way that meant they were in or near appear normal range.
Amsel explained that these tests were just some of the factors he considered in his diagnosis, including two interviews with her.
Amsel said Bischoff-Wurstle underestimated her symptoms in the surveys she filled out because she wanted to present herself in a positive light.
“I have no doubt that she met criteria for persistent grief disorder, anxiety and depression,” he said.
The plaintiff and the defense rested their cases on Thursday. They are expected to present closing arguments on Friday before the case goes to the jury.
This is one of more than a dozen lawsuits filed against the company, but it is the first case to go to trial.
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