updated 2/9/2007 3:11:24 PM ET 2007-02-09T20:11:24

A laid-off funeral home worker was arrested for allegedly arranging phony funerals that included carrying caskets in a sport utility vehicle and having his girlfriend act as a priest.

John Peffer had arranged two burials and two cremations for which the families paid him more than $22,000 before he was arrested this week in Ohio, the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement Thursday.

His former employer, Dean Lopez Funeral Home, discovered the problem and notified police after a hospice requested a death certificate related to one of the cases.

Bob Dean said Peffer, 38, had been a good employee but was laid off last fall because of budget cuts at his family-run funeral home.

According to the sheriff’s department, before Peffer left in mid-October, he forwarded one of the office phone numbers to his cell phone and took calls. He even set up a Web site advertising a business he called Paradise Mortuary. Dean discovered the problem about 10 days after Peffer left, the department said.

Peffer was being held in Ohio on a Florida warrant with charges of practicing funeral directing without a license, using the title of a funeral director without a license, grand theft and obtaining property by fraud, the department said. It was not immediately known if he was represented by an attorney.

One of the alleged victims in the case, Diane Blevin, said she paid Peffer $10,000 for her mother’s funeral and burial.

Peffer told her the funeral had to be held at a church because the funeral home was being used to conduct an autopsy. She said she learned later that her mother’s body was originally transported in the back of a SUV instead of a hearse.

“This was the first funeral I had to plan,” she said. “I was so vulnerable.”

Jason Swaidan said he paid Peffer nearly $7,000 so his father’s funeral would include a hearse, police escort and graveside service by a priest. After a 30-minute wait for the priest, Swaidan said a woman with brown hair showed up to perform the service. Police say that woman was Peffer’s girlfriend.

“I was told the hearse broke down and the police don’t do funeral processions anymore,” Swaidan said.

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