The small town of Gravity, Iowa has about 150 residents, a Post Office, a bar, gas station, feed/grocery store, and two churches. Until the end of harvest season, it sits in the middle of an ocean of corn and soybeans. There is one other business in this backwater, the Rainey Funeral Home and Crematorium. It is the most successful business in town.

Operating out of a converted Victorian home, the house’s large ballroom is where the funerals and memorials take place. The crematorium has two incinerators. It sits in a separate stone building away from the main house. The garage, housing the hearse, an SUV, and a transport vehicle, is next to the crematorium.

John Pilson Rainey, Jr. or J.P. for short, is the proprietor and chief undertaker for Rainey’s. He has operated this business since his father’s death ten years ago. Known in southwestern Iowa as a kindly, empathic man skilled at comforting grieving families, in addition to being an undertaker, is a licensed doctor, trained at the osteopathic medical school in Des Moines.

By virtue of his medical training, J.P. is also county coroner. The position requires him to report on deaths affecting “the public interest,” including suspicious deaths and those without obvious cause. Autopsies and reports on his findings go to the state medical examiner. When warranted, the county attorney gets reports of his findings. He is known for his meticulous work and is well regarded. When J. P. determines the cause of death, it’s accepted by the authorities.

His funeral business and work as county coroner had been steady, his life uncomplicated, until eight months ago when his son got sick. J.P. and his wife noticed the twelve-year-old had become lethargic and was losing weight. Local doctors couldn’t figure out the problem, so they took their boy to the largest medical center in Omaha. There he was diagnosed with a rare cancer. Without treatment, the boy’s chances of survival were slim.

J.P.’s health insurance carrier refused to cover the treatments, deeming them as “experimental.” He would have to come up with the money to cover the treatment costs if he wanted his son to have a chance to live. For the past few months, using his savings and funeral home money, he was able to cover the cost, but those funds were running out. He was about to take out a line of credit on his business when a local tragedy occurred which presented an opportunity.


A call came from the sheriff about an apparent accidental death. “J.P., it looks like we have a fall in a home, a woman. It’s at the home of Randall Perkins. We’ll need a cause of death on our report. Can you come out to location?”

Randall Perkins was a childhood friend. J.P. knew his wife and their adult son. This was going to be a tough one. He had to do double duty, help investigate her death, pick up the body for an autopsy, and comfort his friend. Once he got there, looking over the scene and talking to the sheriff, J.P. thought the circumstances seemed straightforward. It seemed that Randall’s wife fell down the basement stairs while carrying a load of laundry to the washer in the basement.

When J. P. and the sheriff interviewed Randall, the sheriff seemed satisfied with the explanation and left. Alone with J.P., Randall admitted he pushed his wife down the stairs after an argument about a large gambling debt.

“Things have been bad, J.P. My gambling’s gotten worse, been losing bad; Ellie was threatening to leave. I got involved with this bookie named Passmore. He runs book for this guy in Chicago, Mario Constantino; he’s known as Junior. I owe a boatload of money.

“I didn’t mean to hurt her. She was close to the top of the stairs. I got mad and shoved her; she fell. I don’t know; maybe she broke her neck, hit her head. What does it matter; she’s dead. I made it look like an accident. I need that life insurance money, J.P. It’s $250,000; with it, I can cover my debt to the guy in Chicago; he’s squeezing me hard. I can’t have my son finding out about this; losing his mother is tough enough, this would kill him. You gotta help me out.” It was then that J.P. saw a way to get the money needed for his son’s treatments.

“Okay, Randy, I think I can help, but I need the original life insurance policy. If it’s free of obligations against the value, you’re going to contact the insurance company and add the Rainey Funeral Home as a loss payee to cover the funeral expenses. It’s like the funeral home is a beneficiary. My fee for these ‘special services’ is 15 percent of the face value of the life insurance policy.”

“15 percent? You’re ripping me off, man,” Randall said.

Hearing this, J.P. was annoyed. I’m trying to help this guy, he kills his wife, is facing 15 to 25 in prison, and wants to haggle over the price. I’m taking the risk. He started to get up to leave, but he needed that money. He said one more thing.

“Remember, I’m the only one who can establish a medical cause, dummy up the file, issue an official death certificate, and then use the crematorium to dispose of evidence. I can tell the sheriff this looks like a homicide if that’s what you want, you go to jail, no insurance money. It’s your choice.”

“No, everything is good,” Randall said.

“Alright then, we’re agreed. You make the change; have the insurance check sent to me directly. When I get it, we’ll do the split. I’ll make sure the sheriff’s official report shows the death was ‘accidental’ and issue a death certificate, but I won’t do it until I’m sure you’ve added the funeral home. When my official report is done, the life insurer will pay right away,” J. P. said.

A week or so after the funeral, J.P. received the check and paid the remainder of the policy back to his friend minus the special services fee. All funeral and cremation costs were charged and proper entries were made on the books. Also, Rainey’s appeared to place a large order for embalming supplies, equipment, and upgrades to the crematorium facility in the amount of $37,500 with a mortuary equipment and supply company. It was a dummy entry on the books. That money later turned into cash and ended up in a safe deposit box at the bank in Bedford, Iowa.

While a nice and unexpected payday, this type of business wasn’t steady and J.P. needed a flow of cash to keep his son’s treatments going. At least he had things covered for a while, but he needed more: a lot more.


Flush with the insurance proceeds, Randall Perkins set a meeting in Chicago with Tony Tomosino at a bar on the Northside; he was there to settle up.

When Randall got to town, he met up with Tony. “You got it?”

“Yeah, here’s $150, everything.” Randall pushed a backpack across the table. Tony looked confused. “What’d you mean ‘everything?’ Where’d you get this type of dough?”

“My wife died; I got some life insurance.”

“When’d she die?” Tony asked.

“A few weeks back.”

“And you got the money that fast? How’d you do that?”

“Just insurance stuff; I know the county coroner,” Randall said.

Normally, Tony didn’t care how degenerates got the money, but he sensed something about this hayseed wasn’t right; he pressed him. At first, he suspected a sting. “You working for the cops?” Tony grabbed Randall and felt around for a wire. He found nothing.

“No, I swear I’m not,” Randall said.

“So, I’ll ask again: where’d you get this money?” Randall then told Tony about J.P., his son’s cancer, Rainey’s crematorium, the insurance scam, and Gravity, Iowa.


For all installments of “A Problem in Gravity,” click here.

Previous installments

  1. Part 1