Gothamist: NYPD Officers Stole Late Husband's Ashes From Brooklyn Widow And Claimed It Was Heroin, Lawsuit Claims

The Santiago family home in Bushwick, where police allegedly confiscated a memorial urn last year. (Google Maps)

The Santiago family home in Bushwick, where police allegedly confiscated a memorial urn last year. (Google Maps)

By Jake Offenhartz
May 20, 2019

A Brooklyn grandmother says NYPD officers stole her late husband's ashes during a no-knock raid last year, then falsely arrested multiple family members, including the widow herself, after mistakenly concluding the remains were heroin. Those charges were tossed over a year ago, but the police department still isn't saying what happened to the ashes.

According to a federal lawsuit filed earlier this month, roughly a dozen police officers—one of whom has a lengthy history of alleged misconduct—raided 65-year-old Lucia Santiago's Bushwick home last February. With guns drawn, the officers roused Santiago from her bed, then cuffed her, as well as her two sons and 17-year-old grandchild, who was playing video games.

After allegedly demanding to know where the "guns and drugs" were, the cops proceeded to ransack the apartment—"breaking furniture, kitchen cabinets, bed springs, among other things," per the complaint. While the officers did not locate guns or drugs, the suit states, they did find an "urn and vials containing the ashes of the late Miguel Santiago."

The cremated ashes of the patriarch, who died three years ago, had been placed in capsules so that his loved ones could wear them in a necklace and keep him close to their hearts, according to the family. Ms. Santiago says that even as she explained this to the officers, they insisted the remains were evidence that her son was selling heroin. The capsules were confiscated, and the family hasn't seen them since.

"It's like desecrating the grave of a loved one," attorney Phillip Akakwam, who is representing the family, told Gothamist. "It can be very emotional. Ms. Santiago starts crying whenever she talks about."

Compounding the frustration, officers also allegedly stole $1,600 in rent money from the widow; cops in New York City routinely seize cash they find during an arrest, as part of a controversial practice known as "civil forfeiture."

Additionally, Santiago's son Nelson, an insulin-dependent diabetic, was suspended from his job at the Department of Education as a result of the arrest. He lost his health care pending the outcome of the case, and ended up pleading guilty to disorderly conduct because of "pressure to restore his job and health benefits," per the complaint.

Each of the charges against the other family members were promptly dismissed by a judge. But more than a year after the initial raid, the family says the city and the NYPD are stonewalling about what happened to the stolen remains. In an interview with the Post, Nelson Santiago said cops initially told them "evidence they don't use is discarded," but has yet to confirm whether the ashes were trashed.

The attorney for the family added that they were "disappointed and frustrated by not being able to get back the ashes, or at least have some definitive answer from the police, or whoever it is that has custody of them."

A spokesperson for the NYPD told Gothamist that the officers executed a legal search warrant on the home and that the family may file for a release of non-contraband evidence that has been vouchered. The family says they have attempted to do this multiple times without success. The police spokesperson did not respond to follow up inquiries about the status of the ashes, or if they intend on returning Ms. Santiago's rent.

The family is seeking unspecified damages from the city of New York, alleging a host of civil rights violations, and accusing the NYPD of a pattern of racist searches that baselessly regard the homes of minorities as "drug and gun-infested."

The suit names Detective Allan Ward, as well as fifteen unnamed officers who allegedly participated in the raid. According to a Legal Aid Society database of police misconduct lawsuits, Ward has a history of bringing false drug charges against Brooklyn residents, and has been the subject of at least four lawsuits. The city has settled two of those suits at taxpayer cost of $365,000.

Leaked internal records show that Ward was found guilty in 2014 of crashing a police department vehicle while intoxicated, then interfering with an official investigation into the incident. He was docked 10 vacation days as a result of the incident. Last year, Ward received a salary of $94,080, with an additional $43,987 collected in overtime and other pay.

A spokesperson for Mayor Bill de Blasio declined to comment on either the specific officer or the case at large, and referred us to the NYPD.