ST. PETERSBURG — The owners of a St. Petersburg rental home opened the door to an outbuilding recently and made an eerie discovery:
A previous tenant had left behind more than 40 plastic bags, each of which contained ashes. Each bag had a label with a name and what appeared to be a Social Security number.
Considering that the tenant was Lisa Speights, the former director of a controversial funeral home, it didn't take long for the meaning to sink in.
The bags contained cremated human remains.
"All they did was unlock an outbuilding and ooooh what's this? " said Andra Dreyfus, the landlord's attorney. "We were totally shocked."
It's the latest weird twist in the story of Speights, whose Morning Glory Funeral Chapel closed last year after several complaints, including two clients who said they discovered maggots on the bodies of their loved ones.
Speights this week said that the remains were unclaimed and that she has been working to find family members, even though she surrendered her funeral director and embalmer license in June and promised not to reapply for another five years.
"Some of these families owed balances and did not want to pay, although all services were performed and I would have released the remains anyway," Speights wrote in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times.
Speights has worked in the funeral home industry for more than a decade and said in a 2006 Times article that she handles bodies with special care, out of respect for the families.
Speights used to work at the Morning Glory Funeral Chapel in Tampa with a man named Harold Jones. But the state issued a cease-and-desist order against Jones, who was not licensed as a funeral home director but had transported several bodies and conducted other work for the home, according to state records. In 2006 state regulators said the funeral home was "failing to maintain a properly functioning refrigeration unit for storage of dead bodies."
That same year, Speights opened the Morning Glory Funeral Chapel in St. Petersburg. That funeral home gained notoriety when two families claimed they found maggots crawling on their dead relatives, one during services, one during a viewing.
Citing those "shocking and appalling" complaints, the state's Division of Funeral, Cemetery and Consumer Services last year ordered the funeral home to stop embalming or storing bodies at its 3301 Fifth Ave. S location.
The funeral home closed later last year.
By January of this year, Speights was living in a rented house at 2741 Fourth Ave. N when a fire broke out, forcing her to move out.
The homeowner, Betty Bleckley, has been refurbishing the house since then, said Dreyfus, her attorney. As part of that process, family members about a month ago opened an outbuilding behind the house and discovered some boxes containing the plastic bags of remains.
"We have no idea why she did this," Dreyfus said. "We were totally shocked."
Dreyfus called the St. Petersburg Police Department, which is now holding the remains, awaiting the outcome of a new state investigation.
Speights, however, has an explanation. She said people who would come to Morning Glory sometimes did not claim the remains of their loved ones.
"People don't claim them because they don't want them in their homes and don't want to spend the money to inter," Speights said in an e-mail.
"Legally, I can dispose of them within 180 days. All of these remains are at least two years old, without being claimed. However, I was storing them just in case a family member contacted me," Speights said.
Other funeral home officials confirmed that families do in some cases fail to claim cremated remains and that after a period of time, they can be scattered in the Gulf of Mexico.
Speights would not release the names of the people whose remains were left behind, and neither would police nor state regulators.
"Families will be notified so we can verify their wishes for handling of the cremains," said Nina Banister, spokeswoman for the state's chief financial officer, whose office includes funeral home inspectors.
Curtis Krueger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8232.