'Scammed on the worst day of my life': Pet owners say cremation service took their money, ghosted them

Van Nuys, CA - April 16: Robert Balog holds an image of his late cat Stewie in his home on Tuesday, April 16, 2024 in Van Nuys, CA. Balog was victim of a scam where pet owners never received the remains of their animal after cremation. (Carlin Stiehl / For the Times)
Robert Balog holds an image of his late cat, Stewie, in his home in Van Nuys. (Carlin Stiehl/For The Times)

On a Monday night in early March, Robert Balog and a friend made the hour-and-a-half drive from Van Nuys to Oxnard to meet an elusive man in a Best Buy parking lot.

The man, 35-year-old Anthony Nuñez Jr. of Oxnard, emerged from an old-model red Ford Ranger and handed Balog a thick black bag. Inside were the decaying remains of Balog’s beloved pet, a short-hair American tabby cat named Stewie.

Balog drove Stewie home, rolling down the windows to dampen the smell that began to fill the car. He was just grateful he got him back, he said.

A hand holds a box with a ribbon on it.
Robert Balog holds the box containing the remains of his late cat, Stewie, that were eventually returned to him. (Carlin Stiehl/For The Times)

Nuñez and his partner, Nejyredth Valasquez, run We Care Pet Cremations, which offers to pick up and cremate pets and return the ashes in Los Angeles, Ventura, San Bernardino, Kern and Orange counties. Nuñez and Valasquez spend their days driving hours to pick up deceased animals, customers said.

"We Care Pet Cremations only offers true private cremations in a state of the art new machine that has separate chambers with separate doors," the company claims on its website. "It is our mission to provide an affordable, personalized, detailed and dignified private cremation for your loved one."

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But We Care doesn't have a state-of-the-art crematorium; it takes animals to other companies' facilities to be cremated, according to the owner of one such company. And after they pick up the animals, they often don’t return the cremated remains, multiple customers said.

Several people who spoke with The Times had nearly identical experiences with the company: Nuñez or Valasquez would pick up their pet at any time of day, collect payment through Zelle and promise to return with the ashes in two to three weeks.

Then, as weeks and months passed, Nuñez and Valasquez would stop replying to the customers. They kept the money and, in most cases, blocked their customers’ calls.

A man sits by a window with half-drawn blinds.
Balog shows his tattoo of Stewie. He says the cremation service he used for Stewie took his payment, then ghosted him for weeks. (Carlin Stiehl/For The Times)

“I feel like I got scammed on the worst day of my life,” Balog said in an interview. “In the very-best-case scenario, they’re a horrible business that’s in way over their head, just picking up animals and not being able to process them. Worst-case scenario, they’re scammers.”

Balog, 44, raised Stewie with his friend Tory, who declined to share her last name out of fear of retaliation from We Care. Tory and Balog were able to retrieve Stewie’s decomposing carcass after pestering We Care with calls and texts from different numbers and leaving several negative reviews online.

Tory also made a public Instagram video detailing the ordeal and posted about it in cat rescue groups on Facebook. The online posts got We Care’s attention, Tory said, and the company agreed to meet in the Best Buy parking lot. Stewie had not been cremated when Balog picked him up, although Nuñez had asserted that the cremation had been performed.

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In hindsight, Tory said, she should have suspected that We Care was not legitimate. “There were some really odd things, but I just thought maybe I was being hypercritical,” she said. Nuñez picked Stewie up in a “random car” despite advertising a black car service, and accepted the $560 payment only through Zelle — a mechanism that doesn't allow users to stop payments or easily obtain refunds.

“We’re both distressed, we’re mourning and we’re upset. Stewie is like my first child,” she said. But as time passed, she realized the gravity of the situation she was in.

“Their communication when you start talking to them is very consistent and responsive,” she said. “Then the second you pay them, they don’t respond or they take a long time to respond. I just had a weird feeling.”

Tory confirmed her fears when she found several reviews online detailing similar horror stories. “If you love your pet don’t call this place,” one reviewer wrote on Google a month ago. “They’re good in the beginning but once they collect money and your loved one YOU WILL NOT HEAR FROM THEM AGAIN. … YOU WILL NEVER SEE YOUR PET AGAIN!!!”

Nuñez agreed to an interview with The Times and scheduled a phone call via text message. At the beginning of the call, he said he had to reschedule for the next day. When the next day came, calls and texts to his number were blocked.

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Tory has helped other pet owners get back their pets' cremains. She messaged Yelp users who left negative reviews and instructed them to contact We Care with different phone numbers and send calls and texts incessantly to get their attention.

After contacting We Care nonstop about her cat, which had been picked up the month before, 23-year-old Gabrielle Real of Hollywood finally got a clue as to what Nuñez and Valasquez were doing with the bodies.

They told Real that her chocolate point Siamese cat Hela was at a Long Beach crematorium called Furrever Friends. The owner of Furrever Friends, who declined to be identified for this article for fear of being inundated with calls from We Care customers, confirmed she had a contract with We Care to do third-party cremations.

A man pets a cat.
Balog with his cat Khaleesi. (Carlin Stiehl/For The Times)

She has since ended the contract, she said, and We Care has retrieved the ashes for all the pets it hired her to cremate.

According to multiple sources, We Care dropped off 50 to 80 dead pets at Furrever Friends with no contact information for the pets' owners.

Real shared the name of Furrever Friends with Tory, who told pet owners she was in contact with that their animals' ashes may be there. The Furrever Friends owner began to receive distressed phone calls from We Care customers and was able to find their pets’ cremains at her facility.

Real retrieved her cremated pet from Furrever Friends just over one month after she hired We Care. She never got her $309 back.

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The owner of Furrever Friends, who runs a legitimate pet cremation business, said pet owners must do proper research before choosing a company to pick up and take care of their passed loved one.

The customers interviewed by The Times said they paid We Care for keepsakes along with their pets' ashes, and received none of them. For example, Jacqueline Alonso, 36, said she paid $227 for her package, which was supposed to include a paw print mold of Spot, her chihuahua, and another keepsake.

She chose We Care, she said, because the cremation service she used for her last pet wasn’t available, and We Care offered pet pickups 24/7.

“At that moment when your pet dies, your head is everywhere,” she said. “They put Spot in the trunk and took him away.”

She wouldn’t have gotten her pet's cremains back if it wasn’t for Tory, she said, who told her that Spot might be at Furrever Friends. She picked up Spot's ashes in Long Beach six weeks after We Care collected him.

During those six weeks, We Care gave her several excuses, including travel and family emergencies. “They play pingpong with you and nothing is done,” Alonso said. “What they’re doing is disgusting, and they still have the nerve to lie to your face.”

Alonso, who lives in Huntington Park, never received her keepsakes or her money back. But she said the most important thing was finding Spot's cremains at Furrever Friends. “My sweet little boy was there,” she said.

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Stewie was never sent to Furrever Friends, Tory said. She believes Nuñez and Valasquez have a refrigerated facility in Oxnard where they are keeping the bodies. “They’re pocketing the money and they’re storing the pets,” Tory said. “Do they know what type of emotional distress and trauma they’re causing for people?”

Tory assumed the worst when she stopped hearing from We Care — that they had dropped her pet off in a dumpster or on the side of the road somewhere.

The Times contacted We Care from a number other than the one Nuñez apparently blocked, requesting its business. It responded quickly to arrange a pet pickup. The company is now also operating under a new name, Honorable Animal Aftercare, according to Tory, who saw that name on her invoice.

“They’re not stopping,” Tory said, who is weighing her next steps. “I just don’t want it to happen to anybody else.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.