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Judge stiffs funeral director

Published 5:38 pm, Thursday, January 3, 2013
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BRIDGEPORT -- A local funeral home director who anticipated getting a nice present from the local probate court for giving a stranger a lavish funeral, instead ended up with a big chunk of coal.

Not only did Probate Judge Paul Ganim reject Brenda Ortiz's bill for $34,000 to the estate of Myron Johnson, who died alone and without family on Christmas Day 2007, he ordered her to repay the estate $618.16 for causing it legal expenses.

"The request for $34,049.28 for a funeral fit for a king is equally outrageous," the judge stated Thursday. "The actions of Ms. Ortiz are self-serving and did nothing but bleed the estate of Myron Johnson at the expense of the beneficiary of the estate, the state of Connecticut and all its citizens."

Richard Bortolot, who represents Johnson's estate, said he has never seen a judge order a funeral director to reimburse an estate for legal costs in the more than 20 years he has been practicing probate law.

"This is a very, very unique and original decision and hopefully this sends a message to funeral directors and anyone else who would try and take advantage of an estate," Bortolot said. "This was disgusting, it was pure greed and an abuse of the system."

For more than 20 years Johnson toiled for the Metro-North Railroad fixing the old clocks in the state's train stations. When he died in his small downtown apartment he was alone, no friends or family. His body was held at the state medical examiner's office for eight months because there was no one to claim it.

But in October 2008, Ortiz, the director of the Community Funeral Chapels on Park Avenue, who had never met Johnson, claimed his body.

When the 68-year-old Johnson died he had $137,000 in the bank and nearly $4,000 in uncashed paychecks. When Ortiz picked up the body, she found $795 in Johnson's pockets.

"I decided to give him the best funeral I could," Ortiz explained later at a court hearing.

So she placed the body in a top-of-the-line stainless steel casket and ordered a stainless steel vault for burial at Park Cemetery.

By later accounts it was a beautiful funeral at St. Luke's/St. Paul's Episcopalian Church on Kossuth Street, a church Johnson had never attended. There were pall bearers and flowers and even a guitar player. The only thing missing were mourners.

On Oct. 24, 2008, Johnson was buried at Park Cemetery. Ortiz ordered a granite gravestone for $2,695 but that's when the bottom dropped out.

She submitted a bill to the probate court seeking to be reimbursed from Johnson's estate. Her bill, totaling more than $64,000, included more than $30,000 for the casket, $23,000 for the vault, $600 for use of her facility for the wake that no one attended and $1,259 for her services. It was soundly rejected by Ganim who accused Ortiz of trying to profit on Johnson's body.

"If approved, Ms. Ortiz would have profited in excess of $30,000, which the court found to be OUTRAGEOUS and UNREASONABLE," Ganim wrote in his decision Wednesday.

Ortiz later revised bill to total $34,049.28. Her new bill included $13,544 for the casket, $10,584 for the vault. But she also wanted $600 for the wake, $150 for the funeral service, $175 for the church service, $150 for the graveside service, $1,259 for "basic" services and $2,956.70 for the headstone.

That last charge particularly irked Bortolot because he paid $1,800 to put a stone on Johnson's grave.

Bortolot recommended that Ortiz receive $1,800 for her efforts, the amount funeral homes receive from the state to cremate unclaimed bodies.

Ganim did find that Ortiz have what he called "proper" funeral expenses connected to Johnson's burial in the amount of $5,381.84.

But then he pulled the rug out from under her, subtracting the legal expenses he said she cost Johnson's estate, leaving her owing the estate $618.16.

Bortolot said he would be sending a letter to Ortiz demanding that money. This all comes after Ortiz was fined $5,000 by the state Department of Public Health for her actions in the case.

dtepfer@ctpost.com; 203-330-6308; http:// twitter.com/dantepfer