Roy Shantz was driving a garbage truck through Villas West a few months ago when he came across a familiar sight. Somebody apparently had died and the family had hired people to clean out the house.
“These people had an extreme amount of garbage,” he said.
He headed for the front door to tell them he couldn’t take it all then had a change of heart. He grabbed some trash bags and carried them to his truck.
“We know that when people pass, the last thing the family wants to think about is the rubbish and getting a hard time for tossing so much away,” he said.
He told his crew to go get the rest of the bags.
He was about to hit the button to crush the contents of the truck when he saw the corner of a small brown plastic box that had tumbled out of a trash bag. He knew immediately what it was, and for a second — just a second — he considered leaving it.
“I was baffled at the fact that somebody would throw this away,” he said. “What I was thinking was, what would I want somebody to do if it was me or a loved one of mine?”
He reached in and picked up the box of cremated remains.
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Shantz has worked for Titan Recycle and Trash for eight years and has seen some odd things turn up in the back of his truck — antiques, collectibles, even gold rings — “but nothing like this.”
“Usually it’s when people pass and the kids come clean out the house, they end up throwing everything,” he said. “This probably happens more often than we all think.”
A sticker on the box of ashes read, “Camellia Memorial Lawn,” and gave a Sacramento P.O. Box. It included the name of a funeral home along with “Cremains of Bonnie Jean Baumgartner” typed on the label in capital letters.
Shantz put the box on the passenger seat and finished his route.
That was in June. Since then, Shantz has been on a one-man mission to return the box to Baumgartner’s family, and it hasn’t been easy.
His first effort took place outside the villa before he got back in his truck. He found workers cleaning the yard and they said they’d pass along his number to those who’d cleaned out the inside. He never heard a word.
Then he went to the Pima County Sheriff’s Department in Green Valley.
“They didn’t know what to do because they’d never encountered this before,” he said.
The PCSD said he could keep the cremains after admitting to him they could end up in a closet for a very long time. Deputies said they’d head over to Villas West, but Shantz said he was never contacted after that.
Then he visited a local mortuary and called several others and a crematorium. He learned forgotten cremains weren’t unusual and that mortuaries across the country have trouble finding space for them, though they aren’t required to keep them indefinitely.
He also researched Baumgartner’s family online but only found relatives who were long gone.
“I drove around with her in the truck with me for about three days,” Shantz said. “Then I took her home and set her on a shelf in my bedroom.”
He said he has a very understanding wife.
The search dragged on and Shantz said he was even more motivated after the death of his father-in-law shortly after his search began.
“It’s just the human thing to do,” he said “Whatever made this person the person she was isn’t in this box. But what would you want for your family or you if you were in that position?”
He called the California funeral home listed on the box and got nowhere. He even bought background history on the family “trying to figure stuff out.”
“I found names and left messages on people’s Facebooks, but nobody ever contacted me back.”
Then he caught a break. He called the mortuary in California again and talked to an employee “who was appalled this happened. She went above and beyond” trying to help, he said, and thought she’d reached a 98-year-old relative in a rest home.
The home said they’d never heard of the person. Another dead end.
Weeks and months passed, but Shantz couldn’t forget about it.
“She’s been on my mind,” he said. “I was getting close to spreading her ashes somewhere nice.”
Then he went back to Villas West last week where he ran into a helpful manager. She talked to Shantz and called him back two hours later with good news.
It turns out the villa had been rented by James Baumgartner, and Bonnie Jean was his wife. When James died, the place was cleaned out. On his lease was an emergency contact, his son, Keith, in Colorado. The manager called him.
Keith Baumgartner came to Green Valley after his dad died last summer but he didn’t know his stepmom’s ashes were here. He went through the house and doesn’t recall coming across them.
His parents were divorced in 1982, and his dad moved to California a couple of years later, where he married Bonnie Jean. Keith stayed in Colorado with his mom.
He said his stepmom died 15 or 20 years ago.
“I don’t think it was intentional by any means,” he said of the house cleaners who bagged up the ashes. “I do appreciate this gentleman’s efforts,” he said of Shantz.
He said he’d been contacted by somebody over the past few months and had given his address but the ashes never arrived.
Baumgartner lives in Loveland, and said that’s where his stepmom’s cremains will find their final resting place.
“There’s a beautiful reservoir behind me that faces the Rocky Mountains. I plan to release the ashes into the waterway.”
Shantz sent the ashes Friday and hopes they will arrive by Christmas.
“It’s just by chance that she rolled out of the bag and … that she’s actually getting to go back home and be spread by the proper people who are supposed to be spreading them," he said.