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July 28, 2014

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With inmate’s ashes finally in hand, family can consummate ocean burial plans

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Sam Morris

Sandy Morningstar is seen with the cremains of her son Richard Ferst on Thursday, April 10, 2014. Ferst died in October 2013 while he was in custody of the Nevada Department of Corrections. Morningstar didn’t receive the cremains until earlier this month.

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Richard Ferst

Richard Ferst's long-awaited ashes sit on a bed at his mother's Las Vegas home, a temporary resting place before she finally buries them at sea in the Pacific Ocean this summer.

“In prison, I guess he slept on a hard cot or something,” said his mother, Sandy Morningstar. “It's like I'm giving him a proper bed again.”

For half a year since Ferst died inside a cell at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center, his remains were in limbo because state prison officials delivered the inmate's corpse to a Carson City funeral home without first requesting a mandatory autopsy. When the Nevada Department of Corrections seemingly realized the mistake, officials transferred the body to a coroner's office in December before returning Ferst back to the same funeral home for cremation.

Morningstar received her son's remains inside a brown cardboard box April 1. Following Ferst's wishes, Morningstar plans to scatter them into the ocean at Newport Beach, Calif., where Ferst grew up.

“I knew he would come eventually. It just really caught me off guard,” she said. “We were coming up on six months — that's pretty ridiculous.”

Ferst — who had been behind bars since July 2011 serving a maximum sentence of 20 years for burglary, grand larceny and possession of stolen property — is one of four prison inmates who died in October at the same facility in Northern Nevada. Autopsies were not requested for any of the men, becoming a point of contention because a state law, effective June 2, 2013, requires state prison officials to order one for any inmate who dies under their care.

The other inmates are convicted cop killer Larry Peck, 62, who died Oct. 4; Joseph Oxford-McArthur, 31, who was serving a one- to three-year sentence for domestic battery when he was found unconscious Oct. 21 inside his cell before dying four days later at an area hospital; and Scott Wilson, 54, serving a burglary sentence from Clark County of eight to 20 years, who died Oct. 21 at a medical facility inside the prison but whose identity was not publicly disclosed until last week. Foul play was ruled out in all of the cases except for Oxford-McArthur's.

Once a Sun story in early November revealed the Corrections Department was shirking the law, the department began requesting autopsies for inmates who subsequently died.

While Ferst's autopsy was conducted three months ago, its results are still not available, Carson City Coroner Ruth Rhines said last week, noting toxicology tests can often take longer than that to process.

Without the autopsy results, Morningstar still doesn't know how and why her son died.

Morningstar’s attorney, Casey Landis, said medical records showed the inmate's health rapidly deteriorated in his final weeks of life. While a chaplain at the prison speculated that Ferst died of hepatitis C complications, only an autopsy will reveal what actually killed him and whether he was getting adequate treatment for his ailments, Landis said.

Prison officials have given Ferst's family conflicting information about the death — at one point saying he succumbed to surgery complications in a medical facility, then saying he was found dead inside a cell, Landis said. Relatives said the prison staff did not notify them about the surgery until after Ferst died, neglecting the department's standard procedures.

Through the months, their questions about his care have mounted.

Prison officials did not respond to requests for comment about Ferst's case, instead referring inquiries to Rhines and Landis. Director Greg Cox has previously refused to comment about inmate autopsies, citing possible litigation.

“The NDOC has not shown a drop of compassion to put these issues to rest,” Landis wrote in an email. “They have not contacted anyone to clarify past mistakes and miscommunications. They also care little about providing a cause of death in a prompt manner.”

Morningstar, meanwhile, is relieved to finally have her son’s ashes but hasn’t finalized plans for his ocean burial.

“I just need to get through all this other stuff,” Morningstar said.

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