After more than three months in a freezer at a Van Nuys crematory, Michael Sands, the flamboyant publicist who masterminded Mr. Blackwell’s annual worst-dressed list of Hollywood femininity, is finally getting buried -- not cremated.
Sands, 66, died April 6 at Cedars Sinai hospital after choking March 24 on a free sample of steak given to him at pricey Century City supermarket Gelson’s. “He was eating a beef sample, and since he has narrow airways due to Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, it got stuck,” his son Nick told TheWrap.
After efforts to revive him failed, paramedics took Sands to Cedars, where he remained until life-support efforts were terminated.
The burial -- at 11 a.m. Sunday in Home of Peace Memorial Park -- puts an a end to a nasty legal battle between Sands’ 17-year-old son Nick, who wanted a standard Jewish burial, and his sister Barbara Promisel, who wanted to house his ashes in a Boston Bruins memorial urn.
Under Jewish law, a decedent should be buried by sundown of the next day. Sands’ remains were cooled at the crematory for more than 90 days.
“My dad saved me,” Nick told TheWrap, insisting that his father hated the thought of being cremated, “and I saved my dad.”
In his battle for his dad’s body, young Sands got help from a group of guardian angels -- a team that included three lawyers, the family rabbi and a forensic accountant who helped the youth and his mother find lodging after they were left penniless by the PR man’s chilling death.
TheWrap would also play a key role in the outcome of the battle over the body.
At issue in the battle over Sands’ body was his son’s age. Nick is 17 and a minor, meaning he was not legally qualified to determine the fate of his father.
Enter Sands’ siblings -- his sister, Promisel, and his brother, Stephen Shapiro. (Sands birth name was Michael Shapiro). The two siblings, legally considered the next of kin, were insisting on cremation, which violates Jewish law and is considered a sacrilege in the Jewish faith.
The argument culminated at L.A. Superior probate court hearing on July 16, during which Nick’s mother, Sands’ ex-wife Miriam Pell, petitioned the court to release the remains to her. If she lost, the body would have been transferred to the Los Angeles County Coroner’s office for cremation.
“I was scared, but I was calm,” Nick told TheWrap. “I was confident I would win. I was ready. I had my lawyer. I had people on my side and God on my side to help me.”
One of the lawyers on Nick’s side was Aaron Kemp, an attorney for the Screen Actor’s Guild. Kemp was deeply moved by TheWrap’s coverage of the bizarre life and death of Sands.
“Nick's struggle touched my heart to an enormous degree,” Kemp told TheWrap. “In fact, I uttered a secret prayer in my heart that I wanted to help him after reading it. I even posted about it on Facebook.”
But Kemp could not find Nick Sands. Then, another ironic twist in the story: At a kosher supermarket where he had gone to buy some chicken, Kemp bumped into a female friend who was accompanied by a young man.
“He happened to be Nick!” Kemp told TheWrap. “That meeting set in motion my taking on Nick's cause, which was important not only because it was a struggle to prevent desecration of a Jewish body under Jewish law, but also because it was a young son's struggle to protect his father's wishes in the face of tremendous odds.”
Kemp made many appeals to the local observant community in Los Angeles, including Chabad. Hitting roadblocks, he and an attorney friend hired lawyer Stacy Sokol to represent the interests of Sands, his ex-wife and son. Kemp also paid $500 in back fees for Sands’ refrigeration costs the crematory.
Meanwhile, another attorney was playing a key role in stopping the cremation.
Beverly Hills attorney Jeremy Tissot had sent a letter to the Van Nuys crematory urging officials to halt any plans to cremate Sands because of potential litigation. All California Cremation observed the request, though after three months, the firm was growing impatient.
Tissot’s letter stopped the plans of Sands’ siblings. He also reached an agreement with Sands’ sister to turn the body over to Nick -- though soon after, she and Shapiro sent a fax authorizing the remains to be turned over to Jerry Cutler, a longtime friend of Michael and his son. The fax would end up being a critical mistake on the part of Promisel.
Then, on July 16, Nick and his mother went into Judge Michael I. Levanas’ courtroom in downtown Los Angeles to request that Sands' remains be turned over to Pell.
Opposing them were Shapiro, who lives in the Las Vegas area, and Promisel, who lives outside Boston. She wanted to store the Bruins funeral urn in her bedroom so she could converse with her dead sibling late at night. The Bruins were her dead brother’s favorite hockey team.
Shapiro did not appear, and his sister was connected to the hearing by telephone.
Nick and his mother spoke, and she testified that her former spouse repeatedly told her that he did not want to be cremated. Sands’ sister maintained that her brother and his son had a strained relationship, which could become volatile – saying, in fact, he didn’t deserve his father’s remains.
In the ex parte petition for Pell, Sokol maintained that a decision releasing Sand’s body to his client was urgent.
“As the remains have been unclaimed for over 90 days since the death of the decedent (Sands), the crematoria threatens to turn the body over to the Los Angeles County Coroner if no action is taken to claim the remains,”
Moreover, Nick, the petition argued, had already arranged for traditional Jewish burial for his father in a cemetery plot donated Jewish groups. The transfer of the body to a cemetery had also been arranged. His father’s siblings had done nothing.
What was also became critical in the argument for releasing Sands’ remains to Pell was the May 22 fax signed by her husband’s brother and sister releasing the decedent’s body to Rabbi Cutler. This meant that the siblings gave up their rights to determine the fate of their dead brother.
Nick had won.
As a publicist, Sands was a relentless promoter of his clients, sometimes to the annoyance of members of the media. He frequently peppered journalists and members of the media with pitches for his clients on what seemed like a 24/7 schedule.
He also maintained that he led a secret life as a FBI and CIA undercover operative. And he claimed he had aided in the capture of Abu Abbas, the terrorist behind the hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship in 1985.
“Nothing about Michael Sands’ life was ordinary,” said Linda Deutsch,” the fabled AP court reporter who was a longtime friend of Michael and Nick Sands.
“More than anything, Michael relished the chance to be part of a big, bizarre story. How ironic it is that in the end he missed the biggest story he could be a part of -- his own shocking death and the strange family fight over his body. He would be proud that Nick stepped up to make sure his father was given the proper Jewish burial he deserved.”