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Colorado funeral home owners arrested following the discovery of 190 decaying bodies

The Return to Nature funeral home is marked off with police tape on Oct. 6 in Penrose, Colo.
David Zalubowski
/
AP
The Return to Nature funeral home is marked off with police tape on Oct. 6 in Penrose, Colo.

Updated November 8, 2023 at 1:51 PM ET

The owners of a Colorado funeral home were arrested Wednesday after nearly 200 decaying corpses were found improperly stored at their facility.

Jon and Carie Hallford, the owners of the Return to Nature Funeral Home, were arrested on four felony charges, including abuse of a corpse, theft, money laundering and forgery, according to a statement from the district attorney for Colorado's 4th judicial district.

The pair were taken into custody, without incident, in Wagoner, Okla. Both are being held on bonds set at $2 million.

The probable cause affidavit has been sealed, but District Attorney Michael Allen said that he would not contest releasing it to the public at a later date.

"I want to warn you, the information contained in that affidavit is absolutely shocking," he told reporters at a press conference on Wednesday. Prosecutors may bring additional charges to the case as the investigation progresses.

Police first searched the funeral home, located roughly 30 miles south of Colorado Springs in the town of Penrose, on Oct. 3 after receiving a report of an "abhorrent smell" coming from the building.

What they found inside was "horrific," according to Fremont County Sheriff Allen Cooper, who declined to go into further detail during an Oct. 6 press conference on the investigation.

According to its website, Return to Nature offers green and natural burial services, which allow bodies to decompose underground without the use of metal caskets or chemicals.

The practice is legal in the state of Colorado, but the law requires bodies that are not embalmed to be refrigerated within 24 hours of death.

Fremont County Coroner Randy Keller declined last month to say whether the remains discovered at Return to Nature were intended for natural burial, but he did note that they were "improperly stored."

Some relatives of those whose remains were sent to the funeral home for cremation told the Associated Press that they believe they were given fake ashes composed of dry concrete.

The AP also reported that the Hallfords were sued by a crematory that stopped doing business with them, but that issue did not appear to immediately attract inspectors in a state with notoriously lax funeral home regulations — even after the company's registration expired in November.

Investigators originally estimated the 2,500-square-foot building contained about 115 bodies. But after transporting all remains to the El Paso County Coroner's Office, they raised that number first to 189, then 190 individuals.

The process of identifying specific victims is ongoing, Keller said on Wednesday. In total, 110 individuals have been identified using fingerprints, dental records or medical hardware. Twenty-five bodies have been released back to their families.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis issued a verbal disaster declaration in order to free up additional resources for the investigation, an effort that has included both state and federal bureaus of investigation, three county coroners' offices, the state emergency management agency and state and local police agencies.

Some of the investigators come from an FBI team that has been dispatched to mass casualty events like 9/11 and airline crashes.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emily Olson
Emily Olson is on a three-month assignment as a news writer and live blog editor, helping shape NPR's digital breaking news strategy.