Nearly 200 abused corpses were found at a funeral home. Why did it take authorities years to act?

Feb 9, 2024, 2:54 PM | Updated: 3:02 pm

DENVER (AP) — A county coroner reported suspicions about bodies being poorly treated by a Colorado funeral home more than three years before nearly 200 decomposing bodies were discovered inside a decrepit building in October, according to newly unsealed court documents that raise questions about how the mistreatment of corpses was able to continue for so long.

The concerns raised by the Fremont County coroner also included worries about the improper refrigeration of bodies and were reported to a state agency in 2020, according to the arrest affidavits for Return to Nature Funeral Home owners Jon and Carie Hallford. But the coroner received no response from the state agency, which has long struggled to effectively oversee the funeral home industry, according to the documents.

Colorado has some of the weakest rules for funeral homes in the nation with no routine inspections or qualification requirements for funeral home operators. The Hallfords allegedly stored bodies as far back as 2019, and the count grew over the next four years, as prosecutors claim they used the money they were taking from grieving families for lavish expenses.

“The fact that he made a complaint and nothing was done about it just completely blows my mind,” said Tanya Wilson, who hired the funeral home to cremate her mother before learning that her mother’s remains weren’t in the ashes she had spread in Hawaii but languishing inside a building back in Colorado.

“Families could’ve been saved from this if they had done something about this,” she said.

Colorado’s Department of Regulatory Agencies on Friday confirmed that it did get an email from Fremont County coroner Randy Keller in May 2020 saying that he had gotten calls regarding refrigeration issues at a funeral home in his county but he did not say which one. Keller said he did not know if the concerns were justified and offered to do an inspection if the state wasn’t able to, said department spokesperson Katie O’Donnell in a statement.

O’Donnell said the agency didn’t have the power to inspect funeral homes at the time, with lawmakers giving the agency inspection authority two years later. It’s unclear if the agency followed up after Keller’s initial email, or if Keller did an inspection himself.

O’Donnell declined to elaborate on Keller’s 2020 email and the agency’s response. Keller did not respond to a phone call requesting comment.

The funeral home, which was based in Colorado Springs and used a building in nearby Penrose where the bodies were found as a mortuary, was first licensed in 2017. State regulators did not conduct any inspection of the funeral home while it was operating, according to the affidavits. Colorado lawmakers have dragged their feet in passing funeral home regulations on par with most other states — even after a separate Colorado funeral home’s operators were accused of selling bodies years before the discovery at Return to Nature.

The bodies were finally discovered last year after neighbors complained of the smell coming from the building. Authorities who responded found a stain coming out the front door that they say was the result of the decomposition of bodies, according to the affidavits. That echoed descriptions of the floors inside being covered with the fluid from decomposition provided during court hearings for the Hallfords.

The affidavits describe how the bodies were strewn throughout the rooms and how Jon Hallford was seen on surveillance video treating a body more like a sandbag than a former human being. They say that buckets had been placed under some bodies to collect the fluid. About 40 bodies had been stacked on top of each other and some were stored in storage totes, according to the affidavits, which note the “unimaginable conditions” authorities worked in to remove the bodies while wearing protective equipment.

“I picture my mom in every single one of those situations,” said Wilson. “I imagine my mom folded up and put in a storage tote. I imagine my mom just being left on the floor within inches of decomposition fluids.”

“And it haunts me,” she said.

Investigators believe Jon Hallford moved some bodies from the main funeral home in Colorado Springs to the Penrose building in September after a complaint about odor at the main site. According to the affidavit, surveillance footage showed him flipping a body off a gurney and onto the floor at the Penrose building so he could use it to bring more bodies inside from a van on Sept. 9, 2023, a day after the complaint.

The affidavits also provided more details about previous allegations that the Hallfords used money families and insurance companies paid to cover cremations and burials to pay for lavish personal expenses, including trips to California, Florida and Las Vegas, $31,000 in cryptocurrency, laser body sculpting and shopping at luxury retailers like Gucci and Tiffany.

From 2020 to 2023, Jon Hallford also bought over 600 pounds of concrete mix at Home Depot and investigators suspect the couple put it in urns instead of ashes, the affidavit says. Prosecutors have said some relatives of the deceased received fake ashes rather than the cremated remains of their loved ones.

The arrest affidavits have been sealed since November when the couple was arrested in Oklahoma after they allegedly fled, but were made public following an evidentiary hearing held Thursday for Jon Hallford. Carie Hallford’s hearing was held last month.

Jon Hallford is represented by Adam Steigerwald, an attorney from the public defender’s office, which does not comment on its cases. Carie Hallford’s lawyer, Michael Stuzynski, declined to comment.

They are each charged with 190 counts of abuse of a corpse, five counts of theft, four counts of money laundering and over 50 counts of forgery. They have not been asked to enter a plea yet.

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Nearly 200 abused corpses were found at a funeral home. Why did it take authorities years to act?