A former funeral home director is facing a number of charges after allegedly defrauding the families of people who had pre-paid for their arrangements.
Provincial Police Sgt. Peter Leon says the investigation centred on the Watts Funeral Home, a now-shuttered family-run business that had three locations in the central Ontario communities of Wasaga Beach, Midland and Penetanguishene.
Leon says one of the family members on the funeral director team allegedly took money that had been provided by clients who were pre-paying for their funeral arrangements in a bid to make life easier for their loved ones.
He says police began investigating the funeral home in 2013 and eventually uncovered 86 alleged victims who were defrauded of nearly $400,000.
He says the Bereavement Authority of Ontario, the province's regulatory body for funeral service providers, ultimately reimbursed those who lost money.
Darrin Watts, 52, is facing six charges including two counts of fraud over $5,000, 2 counts of theft over $5,000, using forged documents and breach of trust. Leon says no other family members who help run the funeral home were believed to be involved in the alleged fraud.
"It's very disturbing that there's individuals out there that are taking advantage of what is one of the most difficult things to do — say goodbye to a loved one," Leon said.
Carey Smith, Chief Executive Officer of the Bereavement Authority, said Darrin Watts owned funeral homes in Midland and Penetanguishene while his parents ran a third in Wasaga Beach. All three operated under the name Watts Funeral Home, he said.
Smith alleged that Darrin Watts gained access to a number of accounts set up by people who had pre-paid their funeral arrangements.
In such situations, Smith said, clients pay a fixed sum to funeral home operators, who become trustees for the money. He said funeral directors are ideally supposed to invest the funds in trust, allowing them to acrew interest that will cover inflation and other costs incurred since the arrangements were first made.
Between 2012 and 2013, however, Smith alleged Watts went to some banks and cancelled the client's arrangements, receiving the money that was being held in trust.
Smith also alleged Watts told some clients he was transferring their accounts to a different financial institution, then taking possession of the money. Smith also said he forged documents cancelling pre-arrangements for clients who had booked with his parents' funeral home, depriving his family members of the money.
Smith said the Authority audited the Watts' facilities in 2013 and sounded the alarm on the alleged fraud by contacting police. Darrin Watts turned in his funeral director licence shortly thereafter, Smith said, and his parents had to close their business.
Smith said large-scale frauds in the funeral sector are rare, but said they can deal a devastating blow to the entire field.
"When we have one person do something untoward, it starts to erode the reputation of the rest of the industry even if it's a one-off," Smith said. "That's what we have a grave concern about."
Smith said Ontario's funeral directors pay annual licensing fees, part of which form a mandatory contribution to a compensation fund run by the Authority.
That fund is usually used to reimburse clients who made arrangements with funereal homes that were forced to close. In this case, however, he said the Authority used the fund to compensate Watts' alleged victims.
Leon praised the organization's willingness to make the customers' whole.
"They assumed ... the role of becoming the victim on behalf of those individuals," he said.
Watts is due to appear in a Colingwood, Ont., courtroom on May 1. It wasn't known whether he had a lawyer.