POCATELLO — The grief of losing a loved one can almost feel insurmountable, but for the families affected by the alleged crimes of Downard Funeral Home owner Lance Peck, death was only the beginning of a gruesome series of events that many will never forget.
The recent filing of 63 misdemeanor charges against Peck and his arrest on Aug. 30 has left many local residents hopeful that justice for his alleged disregard of trust and compassion will finally be served. But for others, the damage this event has caused is seemingly irreparable.
One former Pocatello resident is determined to reclaim what she can knowing that she’ll never get back the remains of her late husband.
A Pocatello police captain who’s been on the force for more than three decades says he’ll never forget what he described as the most horrific incident of his career after spending more than 12 hours at Downard Funeral Home, 241 N. Garfield Ave., after police served a search warrant at the establishment.
And one local funeral home owner and director says the incident has put Pocatello in the same conversation as the infamous Tri-State Crematory scandal of 2002, in which nearly 350 decomposing bodies were found on the property of a crematorium in Noble, Georgia.
Peck’s recent arrest for his alleged crimes at Downard has in many ways reopened wounds for Pocatello area residents, who are once again wondering if what happened at the funeral home is an example of someone who became overwhelmed and simply unable to keep up or if something else was at play.
Peck has thus far not commented about what happened at his funeral home and his attorney, Richard Blok of Pocatello, declined to make a statement to the media at Peck’s arraignment on Wednesday at the Bannock County Courthouse.
POLICE REPORT DOCUMENTS DISTURBING DETAILS
A police report filed along with 63 misdemeanor charges alleging Peck violated the Idaho Mortician’s Code of Conduct sheds more light on the disturbing conditions at Downard but stops short of shedding light on Peck’s alleged motives.
Pocatello police first learned of suspicious circumstances occurring at Downard on Aug. 29, 2021, when a person called to report a strong smell was coming from an open window of the funeral home, the police report said.
Three Pocatello police officers responded to the business and immediately detected the odor of decomposing flesh emanating from the open window.
“(One officer) looked through the open window and observed a deceased body that appeared to be in a severe state of decay on a table,” police wrote in the report. “He observed what appeared to be fluid from the deceased body on the floor and a large number of dead insects in the room. There was an atrocious smell coming from the area.”
Police said no one was at Downard at the time so they left the scene.
The next day, two other Pocatello police officers observed lights on at the funeral home and believed someone was possibly inside the facility and stopped to investigate. The two officers also observed the badly decomposed body on the table and found another body wrapped in a body bag on a cot in the back of one of the Downard Funeral Home’s SUVs parked in the driveway of the business.
On Aug. 31, 2021, Pocatello police were provided with a video from an anonymous source that showed the decaying body inside Downard Funeral Home. It was determined that the body was actually on a bed, not a table.
“The body appeared to be swollen and a dark brown and purple color consistent with extensive decay,” Pocatello police wrote in their report. “As the video pans to the right side of the room, (there were) black specks all over the floor, which appear to be dead flies and other insects.”
Pocatello police subsequently contacted the Idaho Bureau of Occupational Licensing, which oversees the Idaho Board of Morticians, and two bureau investigators conducted a site visit of Downard on Sept. 1.
During the site visit, Peck told the investigators that the body left on the bed was first received at Downard on Aug. 24, 2021, and was left inside the unrefrigerated room at the funeral home until Aug. 30, 2021, police said. Investigators noted the temperature on the refrigerator at the facility was set at 57 degrees upon arrival, though it did ultimately drop to 37 degrees by the time they departed the facility, according to the police report. Idaho code requires bodies be refrigerated at 36 degrees or cooler within 24 hours of being received.
Peck told the Idaho Bureau of Occupational Licensing investigators that he had been storing one body in the garage of the funeral home since Aug. 4, 2021, nearly a one month period, police said.
Peck surrendered his license to operate Downard on Sept. 1, 2021, and the funeral home has been closed ever since.
He told Pocatello police detectives on Sept. 2, 2021, that he had nine bodies inside of the funeral home’s refrigerator and the reason he had several bodies decaying out in the open was because he had no additional space in the refrigerators and was overwhelmed with bodies he had received back from Idaho State University’s anatomical donation program, police said.
ISU had a longstanding relationship with Downard that continued when Peck became the owner of the business in 2007, university officials told the Idaho State Journal last year. But ISU formally ended its working relationship with Downard in May 2020 after multi-year periods in which the university says the funeral home never provided any bodies for the anatomical program.
On Sept. 3, 2021, police executed a search warrant at Downard as well as the crematory inside the funeral home.
As a result of the search warrant, Pocatello police located 12 bodies in various stages of decomposition, approximately 50 fetuses in jars and dozens of unidentified cremated remains. Police also confiscated thousands of digital and paper records from Downard.
Police were eventually able to positively identify the 12 bodies and determine the fetuses were part of a biological science collection donated from the University of Utah to Idaho State University and then to Downard for destruction. But they were never destroyed, police said.
POLICE CAPTAIN RECOUNTS WORST INCIDENT OF CAREER
Dressed in a full hazmat suit, Pocatello police Capt. Bill Collins spent about 12 hours at Downard on Sept. 3, 2021. He described what he saw as “the thing of nightmares and then some.”
“The smell was horrendous,” Collins recalled. “I mean, if you haven’t smelled decomposing humans before, it’s enlightening. For those of us who have experienced this several times, it was terrible. We expect to experience that when somebody’s been deceased for a month in a hot house in July, right? You don’t expect to see that in the funeral home. We trust these people at funeral homes with our loved ones, family members or friends, to take care of them, to respect them and to honor your final wishes. That was not occurring.”
Collins wasn’t inside the funeral home for the entire 12 hours, but some of the officers he supervises were. He said he feels awful they had to experience what they did.
“Since I’ve been in law enforcement, this is the worst thing that I’ve experienced,” said Collins, who started working for the Pocatello Police Department in 1990. “I’ve seen lots of dead people from all different ways. This was worse. It wasn’t just seeing a dead person. It was a blatant disregard for the remains. It was something I will never get out of my head and probably none of the people that were there will either.”
LOCAL FUNERAL HOME OWNER TALKS ABOUT DAMAGE TO INDUSTRY
Local funeral home owner and director Brock Wilks of Wilks Funeral Home says he can’t begin to try and understand what the families who are the victims of Peck’s alleged crimes have had to go through. But Wilks said he does know how the incident has impacted other funeral homes in the region.
Wilks Funeral Home and Manning-Wheatley Funeral Home both assisted police during the Downard investigation, taking possession of the deceased individuals that were identified and then providing those families with cremation services at no cost.
“There were several families asking more questions about the cremation process or wanting to be at the funeral home when we arrived with their loved one and to be present when the cremation took place,” Wilks said about what happened in the aftermath of the Downard incident. “There were others who felt guilty that they had possibly been given somebody else’s remains or felt guilty that they didn’t ask enough questions at the beginning of the process. The spectrum of feelings was just all over the place.”
Brock said the Downard incident in some ways made it more difficult for all local funeral homes to establish or maintain a trusting relationship with their clients. Transparency has always been at the forefront of how Wilks does business, so he wasn’t too concerned with any fallout, but the incident did require a little more attention to detail.
Unfortunately, the Downard incident put Pocatello on the map for the nation’s funeral home industry, Wilks said. When asked if this was the most shocking incident involving funeral homes that he could think of, Wilks said he could only think of one other incident — the Tri-State Crematory scandal of 2002. That incident involved nearly 350 bodies that had been consigned to the Tri-State Crematory in Noble, Georgia, for proper disposition and were discovered to have never been cremated, but instead dumped at several locations in and around the crematorium’s site. Some were little more than skeletons.
“I think it was discovered that the crematory director in Georgia was giving back cement mix instead of ashes and there was definitely more volume to that incident but what happened here is still shocking,” Wilks said. “I go to funeral home association meetings around the country and everybody in the industry has now heard of Pocatello, Idaho. Unfortunately, for all the wrong reasons.”
VICTIM FINDS SOLACE IN POSITIVE THINKING
In spite of the negative light the Downard incident has cast on the local funeral home industry, one woman is determined not to let it be the defining factor in her husband’s memory. Rhonda D’Amico’s husband Eric died on Aug. 7, 2021, after losing his battle with leiomyosarcoma, a rare and incurable cancer. He had arranged to be cremated at Downard Funeral Home prior to his death. To this day, D’Amico, who was a Pocatello resident but now resides in Oregon, doesn’t know if one of her husband’s last requests was ever fulfilled.
“Eric’s cremains have not been located,” she said. “And I’ve been told not to expect that they ever will.”
Despite the tragic circumstances, D’Amico is determined not to focus on the negative and has instead found solace in working to keep the positive memories of her husband alive.
“People talk about peace and closure, but my expectation is not that I’m going to get any kind of sense of peace and closure even if I find out exactly what happened to my husband,” she said. “But I am determined that I am not going to let this destroy me or my husband’s legacy. And I’m determined to move ahead with kindness and gratitude.”
D’Amico doesn’t have the ashes of her husband to spread at his favorite spots, but she has taken the initiative to erect a monument for him in a place near and dear to her family.
D’Amico said Eric was a huge outdoor enthusiast and he had a habit of picking up rocks at various locations he had a great time at or wanted to remember.
“And so when he passed, I had a house, pockets and boxes full of little stones that he had picked up along his travels,” D’Amico said. “We built a memorial bench up on Scout Mountain for Eric and decided that every time we go up there we’re just going to bring some of those rocks with us that Eric admired for whatever reason. We have turned that into a way for our other family members and friends to remember Eric.”
D’Amico said the bench is adorned with the lyrics of one of the couple’s favorite musicians, Stoney LaRue, of whom they had listened to countless times while Texas country two-step dancing.
“The line is, ‘Stay for a while, sit down easy,’” D’Amico said. “I was able to meet Stoney LaRue and ask his permission to use those lyrics on the bench. He allowed us to do that. Since then we’ve been in music videos with the bench.”
D’Amico said she wanted to personally thank the authorities who have worked with her throughout the course of the Downard investigation.
“I’m very, very thankful to Steve Herzog, the prosecuting attorney, and to his team that have all been a part of this,” she said. “I’m really thankful to the Pocatello Police Department, specifically Detective (Mike) Ballard and Detective Russell Olson who have been really helpful to me. I’m thankful to the coroner (Torey Danner), who has spent extensive time talking to me and alleviating some concerns I have about my husband, though they remain unanswered.”
The Journal spoke to D’Amico on Aug. 31, the one-year anniversary of her husband’s celebration of life and the day after Peck was arrested. She said she slept well the night before knowing justice was being served.
“I can tell you that I woke up feeling much better than I have for a very long time,” D’Amico said on Aug. 31. “Today is the one-year anniversary of my husband’s celebration of life and it’s also the last time that I saw Lance Peck. Waking up today knowing that he woke up in jail feels good right about now.”
Peck only spent that one night in jail, posting a $20,000 bond on Aug. 31. The 63 misdemeanor charges are just the first to be filed against him, the Bannock County Prosecutor’s Office said.
Peck faces 60 counts of unprofessional conduct by a mortician, funeral director or embalmer and three counts of petit theft, according to court records.
The allegations against Peck as outlined in the criminal complaint filed against him on Aug. 30 are startling.
Some of the allegations state Peck removed the corneas of a deceased individual without consent from family members; that he accepted payment from a local funeral home to cremate three bodies but never did so; that he cremated a body against the wishes of a family member; and that he failed to refrigerate two bodies.
Authorities say more serious felony charges are forthcoming and Idaho’s one-year statute of limitations for lesser crimes is why the misdemeanors were filed first.
Peck is due back in court for a pre-trial conference on Sept. 19.
If convicted of all the current charges against him and the sentences are ordered to be served consecutively, Peck faces a maximum penalty of over 30 years in jail.