A bone from a 78-year-old man found dead in a Hazel Park home two years ago was mistakenly buried with the remains of a 15-year-old girl whose body went unidentified for more than 40 years after being found in a Farmington Hills ditch in 1975, the Oakland County Medical Examiners Office said Wednesday.
Darlene McKenzie disappeared from her Detroit home after an argument; DNA supplied by her family led to the identification of her remains in 2016.
The medical examiner’s office said the mix-up occurred when a bone from Donald Smith’s mummified remains were mistakenly released last year to Husband Funeral Home in Westland along with McKenzies remains and then buried in Perry Mount Park Cemetery in Pontiac.
“First, we send our most heartfelt apologies to both families,” Dr. Ljubisa J. Dragovic, the countys chief medical examiner, said in a news release. “The medical examiner’s office holds itself to high standards and has a reputation for excellence. In this instance, however, we fell short of those standards and are taking steps to make sure this doesn’t occur in the future.”
Casimir Miarka, the administrator for the Oakland County Medical Examiners Office, said Wednesday his staff is talking with the families and arranging a date when they will place McKenzies additional remains in her casket and retrieve that of Smiths.
It is the latest incident involving the mishandling of human bodies by funeral homes and medical facilities in Metro Detroit. Two Detroit funeral homes have come under scrutiny after authorities found the abandoned remains of fetuses and infants stored at the mortuaries.
The remains of McKenzie, a Detroit teenager, were identified in 2016 by the University of North Texas through DNA bone samples. The girls body was found in Farmington Hills in June 1975.
She had been strangled and was found near an expressway in the area of Interstate 696 and Haggerty. McKenzie went missing after leaving her west-side Detroit home following an argument.
In 2015, Farmington Hills police reopened the cold case and submitted blood from the unidentified remains for DNA testing. McKenzies daughter had submitted her DNA along with that of her grandmother, and testing showed similarities between the three samples.
The unidentified remains were exhumed Oct. 7, 2016, from the Perry Mount Park Cemetery, where she had been buried as a Jane Doe by the medical examiner.
Two bone samples from the Farmington Hills remains were submitted for DNA testing to the University of North Texas, which was testing Smiths bone samples around the same time. About two months later, on Dec. 27, 2016, the Oakland County Medical Examiners Office was notified the unidentified remains belonged to McKenzie.
A bone sample from Smith was received back from the University of North Texas on Feb. 8, 2017. Two days later, Smiths bone sample and McKenzies remains were released together to the Westland funeral home.
“We are working to determine how the error occurred,” Dragovic said Wednesday. “When we identify that reason, we will implement corrective actions.”
McKenzies remains were reburied on Feb. 25, 2017. Then on April 5, the medical examiners office received her two bone samples from the Texas university.
The medical examiners office “immediately” notified Husband Funeral Home of McKenzie’s additional remains and delivered them to the funeral home on April 15, according to Dragovic.
“In the medical examiner’s office, we witness the grief families go through every day when their loved ones pass away whether from a tragedy or natural causes,” Dragovic said. “We regret causing both families additional pain because of the serious error in handling their bone samples.”
Smith’s remains were handled by Swanson Funeral Home in Flint, which arranged for cremation. Smith’s next of kin has been notified about the error by the Oakland County Medical Examiners Office.
McKenzies remains will be exhumed, at the expense of Oakland County, and her two bones will be placed in the casket along with her other remains and Smiths bone sample will be retrieved from McKenzies casket.
Miarka said “we cant have this happen again,” adding that this was the first time it has happened.
“I dont have any explanation,” he said.