ESCONDIDO, Calif. — Some customers of a California memorial company say the business stopped answering messages after taking their loved one’s ashes, which were supposed to be placed in the ocean for a burial at sea they paid hundreds of dollars for.
And Team 10 has learned police found unopened boxes filled with the cremains of nine people sitting in the backyard of an Imperial Beach, Calif. home during a search last October.
“I still don’t know where he is,” said Rose-Marie Skagerholm, a South Tampa resident, who’s been trying to find out what happened to her father’s ashes for more than two years.
Skagerholm and her family hired Living Reef Memorial in 2019 for $875 after finding the Imperial Beach company online.
She said an ocean reef seemed like the perfect tribute for her father Nils-Axel who died in 2019.
"He loved scuba diving. My parents picked it up when I was pretty young."
Company owner in jail on unrelated charges
Robert Sarnie, the owner of Living Reef Memorial, promotes the business on Facebook and says it sells “scientifically engineered” artificial reefs that mimic the habitat of marine life. Team 10 has learned he’s currently sitting in jail on unrelated charges.
His company markets the reefs as an eco-friendly alternative to traditional memorials. They are made up of human ashes, seashells, and concrete. Sarnie says they are placed in the ocean off the coast of San Diego near the Coronado Islands.
He told Skagerholm in a 2021 email reviewed by Team 10 her dad would be deployed that August. He said about two weeks after the drop, video would be provided.
The email came after delays he said were due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Skagerholm alleges Sarnie soon stopped responding to messages even as she begged several times for an update on the August 2021 deployment.
By November that year, her emails to Sarnie started to bounce back, which prompted Skagerholm to file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau.
Last January, the BBB told Skagerholm it had been unsuccessful in getting a response from the company.
“I want his business shut down so he can’t hurt anymore people,” Skagerholm said.
Elaine Graves said she was “blown away” when she discovered Living Reef online.
Her mother Janet Bartlett died in 2020 in El Paso and having her remains placed in a reef “seemed like the perfect type of way to honor her.”
“She always had a love for the ocean,” Graves, an Escondido resident, told Team 10 investigative reporter Austin Grabish.
'Never seen anything like this': Detective
Her family paid $875 to Living Reef Memorial in September 2021. She said Sarnie personally picked up the ashes from her home and told her the deployment would be live on Facebook so her relatives could watch throughout the country.
Graves said last year she started to get concerned following numerous delays.
“He kept pushing me off … and when I did talk to him, he was very apologetic and he would say, ‘Oh, we're going to do this right now.’ We're going to do it.’ I'd wait weeks and weeks go by. He wouldn't return my calls. It just kept going on like that.”
She said she was caught off guard when Sarnie told her that her mother’s reef had been placed in the ocean in a text message last June.
“I said, ‘What? You deployed my mother. I thought we were all going to be present. It was like a funeral service.’ And he said, ‘I just had to take advantage of the time because I'm very, very ill.’”
Graves said Sarnie never provided video of the deployment, which prompted her to file complaints with the Better Business Bureau and the California Cemetery and Funeral Bureau.
She also contacted Escondido Police.
“I have never seen anything like this,” said Detective Mike Nelson, who specializes in fraud and forgery for the police department in San Diego County.
After getting the complaint, Nelson went to a home in Imperial Beach and found nine boxes of human cremated remains. Remains of pets were also found.
“Several of the boxes had postage that had never even been opened that had gone through the United States Postal Service.”
Nelson was able to reunite six families, including Graves, with the cremains of their loved ones by using identifying markers and calling mortuaries out of state.
“It was incredible. The relief that I felt knowing that we had our mother's ashes back,” said Graves.
Nelson said some victims had no idea their loved ones didn’t receive the burials at sea they paid for.
“We had several families that believed that a burial service had already been completed.”
Three boxes with cremains that Nelson found didn’t have identifying markers on them and remain unidentified.
Nelson said he recommended fraud charges be filed when referring the case to the District Attorney for review.
Relative calls for change to California law
In April this year, Graves got a letter from the San Diego County District Attorney’s office that said it wouldn’t be filing criminal charges due to insufficient evidence.
“We were sad because we thought, "What do we do now? How do we try to protect other people from this person?" Graves said.
DA spokesman Steve Walker told Team 10 his office empathizes with Graves and other families who trusted Living Reef with their loved one’s ashes.
“Our office determined that despite this breach of trust, we cannot file criminal charges in this matter—something we can only do when we believe we can prove a crime was committed beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said.
Shortly after the DA closed the case, the Cemetery and Funeral Bureau wrote Graves a letter telling her it finished its investigation into her complaint on Living Reef Memorial.
The letter said it had insufficient evidence to support a violation of bureau rules.
“It seemed like every time we tried to open a door to get some kind of result from our complaint, that door was firmly shut,” Graves said.
Funeral Bureau spokesman Peter Fournier told Team 10 the regulator’s authority only applies to individuals who scatter more than 10 cremated remains in a calendar year.
“The Bureau does not license scattering business entities,” Fournier said.
Team 10 has written two letters to Sarnie, who’s currently in county jail, to get a response to the allegations in this story. The phone number for his business no longer works and our messages to his other phonelines weren’t returned.
Jail records show he was booked in June by the Fugitive Task Force. He is facing four felony charges for escaping jail custody, vehicle theft, vandalism, and assault with a deadly weapon. He is also charged with a misdemeanor for brandishing a weapon.
Back in Escondido, Graves is calling on lawmakers for change. She said she still can’t believe a license isn’t needed to handle cremated remains.
“The law has to change in California so that if you are going to handle any kind of remains, you must be licensed.”
Team 10 investigative reporter Austin Grabish can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org