Funeral home director gets probation in license case

April 22, 1993|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Staff Writer

A well-known Ellicott City businesswoman was convicted on two counts of practicing mortuary science without a license yesterday after several disgruntled customers complained about her.

Alene Collins Witzke, an officer and director of the Harry H. Witzke Funeral Home, was sentenced to 12 months' unsupervised probation. Each count carried a maximum penalty of one year in jail or a $1,000 fine.

In an agreement with the state, Mrs. Witzke, 64, pleaded not guilty to the charges and waived her right to a jury trial. Howard Circuit Judge Cornelius Sybert Jr. then found her guilty and struck the convictions from her record.

"She's an upstanding citizen . . . but she violated the law," said prosecutor Barton F. Walker III. "Giving her a criminal conviction serves no purpose at all."

Two counts of misrepresenting herself as a mortician were also dismissed.

The state morticians board had accused Mrs. Witzke of handling funeral arrangements without a license. The state prohibits this because of past problems with funeral home representatives taking financial advantage of grieving families, Mr. Walker said.

Mr. Witzke, who is a licensed mortician, said the case was much ado about nothing. He said that his wife had taken care of funeral contracts while he worked in the embalming room. Mrs. Witzke did not handle bodies, according to court records.

"This whole thing was stupid," Mr. Witzke said as he rose to leave the courtroom.

The Witzke Funeral Home on Old Columbia Pike performs 120 funerals and 40 cremations a year. Mr. Witzke has worked as a funeral director in Ellicott City since 1965.

The case began after several clients complained to the state board in 1991 about incomplete and insensitive service at the funeral home. Through an investigation, the board learned that Mrs. Witzke had sold funeral services without a license, Mr. Walker said. Mr. Walker, a prosecutor in Carroll County, was brought in to handle the case because of the Witzkes' prominence in the community.

One of Mrs. Witzke's critics was Julie Baird, who lives in Ellicott City. When Mrs. Baird's husband, Curt, died in 1991, she turned to the Witzkes because they were nearby. She was very disappointed.

"We really got no service at all," she said outside the courtroom yesterday. "It was awful, awful."

Mrs. Baird said she received no help handling the 250 mourners that came to the funeral home and had to escort many of them out herself. Afterward, she said, funeral home workers delivered the flowers to her house, but left them on the lawn. She complained to the state board the next month.

"I just didn't want anyone to go through what I went through," she said.

Mr. Witzke denied that his company had been insensitive or unprofessional.

"That's definitely not true," he said of Mrs. Baird's comments. "Those people were treated royally."

Sitting in the lobby of his funeral home after the sentencing, Mr. Witzke produced a small stack of supportive letters written by community members to local newspapers.

"My work as a minister with [the Witzkes] has taught me that what they did in their vocation has been of the highest moral and ethical standing," wrote James Salango, pastor emeritus at Christ Memorial Presbyterian Church in Columbia.

"Mr. and Mrs. Witzke are in my opinion the most kind, considerate and compassionate people I have ever met," wrote Edwin R. Wolfenden of Columbia, whose wife was buried by the Witzkes.

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