Mysterious note alerts family to casket's possible fate

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by CHRIS HAWES

WFAA

Posted on May 10, 2011 at 11:20 AM

Updated Tuesday, May 10 at 7:57 PM

FORT WORTH — A Fort Worth family wants to know what happened to their father's casket.

It was a work of art. A gift of love.

But weeks after David Escamilla's death, his survivors received a mysterious note. It’s a message  that has left them heartsick.

And now they are filing a lawsuit.

Escamilla was bed-ridden for the final two years of his life, dependent on his family. That is why he  wanted his death to be as easy as possible on his wife and children.

So he asked to be cremated.

“We all wanted my husband to be cremated with dignity, not in a cardboard box,” said his widow, Alice Escamilla.

The Escamillas' sons are the fourth generation of wood-workers in the family. And so, when David Escamilla died in January, they decided on one last way to honor him: They would build their father's casket.

“It was 18 degrees outside, and my brother and I were in the garage day and night until it was done,” said David Escamilla Jr.

“It's an extraordinary casket,” his mother added. “It's an excellent piece of art, that casket.”

The casket, the family believed, was cremated along with Mr. Escamilla.

Then, in March, Alice Escamilla received a mysterious package at her Fort Worth home. There was no return address, and no signature.

Inside, there was a note that said, in part, that the Memorial Park Funeral Services director had not cremated Mr. Escamilla within the casket.

Photographs in the envelope with the note showed what appeared to be the casket -- which had taken nearly 100 hours to craft -- now in pieces.

Some of the photos included a newspaper with the date March 1; that's more than a month after the cremation occurred.

"It almost gave me a heart attack to see that casket dismantled,” Alice Escamilla said.

Johnny Wooten is Memorial Park Funeral Service's director. He said he warned the family the casket lids would need to be removed before cremation.

Wooten, however, said he believed the rest of the casket was cremated, and he was unable to explain the pictures of what appear to be other pieces of the casket.

“I wasn't even in the building, when he was cremated," Wooten said.

Neither Wooten nor the Escamilla family say they know who sent the mysterious packet.

News 8, however, discovered the author of the note was Jim Sanders, owner of Jim’s Funeral Home in Hurst.  Why did he send it?

"Cause I have to sleep with myself every night, and I felt like they had a right to know," he said. "You just don't do that to somebody.”

Sanders said he got the pictures from Josiah Anaya, a former employee of Johnny Wooten. Anaya confirms he is the one who took the photographs.

Anaya also admits to taking the casket apart before the cremation, saying he did so at Wooten's direction. Anaya said he was upset to learn the casket was not cremated with Escamilla, and claims it was instead kept in pieces at the funeral home facility.

“Mr. Wooten said he wanted to make coffee end tables out of the lids of the casket,” Sanders claimed.

Wooten strongly denies all allegations of wrongdoing against him, saying a disgruntled former employee is “trying to set me up.”

Memorial Park's Web site says it is dedicated to serving families with the utmost respect. The Escamilla family, however, is suing Wooten and Memorial Park Funeral Services.

“The family's doing this so that hopefully this doesn't happen to any other families,” said lawyer Thomas Corea, who is representing the Escamillas.

A judge's order resulted in casket lids being found at the funeral home, and stored for safekeeping.

"He didn't deserve that,” Alice Escamilla said. “He didn't deserve to be cremated the way he did it.  The casket is here; he didn't do it like we asked him.”

E-mail chawes@wfaa.com

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