DENVER (AP) - The owner of a Colorado funeral home and his wife were arrested Wednesday in Oklahoma on charges linked to the discovery of 190 sets of decaying remains at one of their facilities, including some that apparently had been languishing there for four years.
Investigators entered the Return to Nature Funeral Home building in the Rocky Mountain town of Penrose in early October to find "abhorrent" conditions with dozens of stacked bodies, according to a federal affidavit that’s under seal in Colorado but available in Oklahoma.
Some bodies had 2019 death dates, according to the document.
"Law enforcement now knows the cremains each family was given could not have been their loved one," reads the documents alleging funeral home owners Jon and Carie Hallford had fled Colorado to avoid prosecution.
The Hallfords were jailed in Oklahoma on $2 million bond on suspicion of four felonies — abuse of a corpse, theft, money laundering and forgery — after their arrest in Wagoner, east of Tulsa. They couldn’t be reached for comment and didn’t have attorneys listed in jail records. Neither has a listed personal phone number, and the funeral home’s number no longer works.
During a news conference in Colorado Springs announcing the charges, District Attorney Michael Allen said authorities wouldn't be releasing many details in order to protect the integrity of the ongoing investigation. But he said the charging documents, which are sealed, contain information that is "absolutely shocking."
Allen didn't say if the Return to Nature Funeral Home had sent families fake ashes, but mounting evidence suggests that was happening. Several families have told The Associated Press that the FBI told them privately that their loved ones were among the decaying bodies, meaning the ashes they were given weren't their family members'. Those families were asked to give samples of the ashes they received to investigators to analyze.
Crystina Page is among the aggrieved relatives of the dead. She went to the news conference clutching a red urn with what Return to Nature told her were the ashes of her 20-year-old son, David, who was shot and killed by law enforcement in 2019. For four years, she carried the urn from the marble halls of the Colorado Capitol to Washington, D.C., as she advocated for police reform.
Her son’s actual body was set to be cremated later Wednesday.
"For four years, I’ve marched all over this country with this urn believing it to be my son," said Page, but "my son has been laying there rotting for four years. ... It’s the most horrendous feeling I’ve ever had in my life."
Allen and others described an ongoing process of identifying the remains using fingerprints, dental records, medical hardware and, if necessary, DNA. They have identified 110 of the 190 sets of remains and have returned 25 to those people's families.
The remains of Linda Martinez, 66, who died in 2020, were recently returned to relatives who originally thought they had interred her ashes in a cemetery.
"How do you store almost 200 people?" wondered her grandson, Michael Martinez, of Colorado Springs. "And how do you even stomach that?"
Investigators are in contact with 137 families, and Allen asked for anyone who might have worked for or with the Hallfords or done business with the funeral home going back to September 2019 to come forward. He also asked relatives of the yet-unidentified dead to contact their late loved ones' dentists for records that might help the investigation.
Jon Hallford's funeral home business is based in Colorado Springs and has a facility in Penrose, a small town about 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Denver. Authorities found the remains on Oct. 4 while responding to a report of an "abhorrent smell" near the Penrose building.
Officials initially estimated there were about 115 bodies inside, but the number increased to 189 after they finished removing all the remains in mid-October. The total rose to 190 on Wednesday, though authorities didn't explain the increase.
A day after the odor was reported, the director of the state office of Funeral Home and Crematory registration spoke by phone with Jon Hallford. He tried to conceal the improper storage of corpses at his business, acknowledged having a "problem" at the site and claimed he practiced taxidermy there, according to an order from state officials dated Oct. 5.
It wasn’t clear if any of the charges pertained to the handling of bodies at the business' Colorado Springs location.
Relatives of people whose remains were handled by the funeral home have feared that their loved ones weren't cremated and were instead among the remains that authorities found. They said death certificates indicated that the remains were cremated at one of two crematories, but both crematories told The Associated Press that they weren't performing cremations for Return to Nature at the time of the dates on the certificates.
"This was intentional. And not only did they think about doing this, but they followed through with it, they concealed it and they did this to almost 200 families," said Page, who started a private Facebook group for affected families.
As for the arrests, Page said, it "makes it feel like there’s an end in sight."
Another aggrieved family member, retired Army officer Tanya Wilson, said her mother’s body was among the neglected remains found last month and that ashes that Return to Nature had told her family were her mother's were not. After law enforcement identified the body of her mother — who cooked unbeatable Korean meals and sometimes worked three jobs to keep the family afloat — they gave Wilson the jewelry left on the body. Some substance remained on the bracelet, she said.
"I don’t think any amount of jail/prison time will justify my brother having to clean my mother’s rotting flesh off her bracelet that they gave back to us. Nothing," Wilson said in a text to the AP.
The company, which was started in 2017 and offered cremations and "green" burials without embalming fluids, kept doing business even as its financial and legal problems mounted in recent years. The owners had missed tax payments in recent months, were evicted from one of their properties and were sued for unpaid bills by a crematory that quit doing business with them almost a year ago, according to public records and interviews with people who worked with them.
Colorado has some of the weakest oversight of funeral homes in the nation with no routine inspections or qualification requirements for funeral home operators.
There was no indication state regulators visited the site or contacted Hallford until more than 10 months after the Penrose funeral home’s registration expired in November 2022. State lawmakers gave regulators the authority to inspect funeral homes without the owners’ consent last year, but no additional money was provided for increased inspections.
One family has filed a lawsuit accusing Return to Nature and the Hallfords of negligence, fraud, intentionally inflicting emotional distress and violating several Colorado laws, among other allegations.
Gruver reported from Cheyenne, Wyoming. Associated Press writer Ken Miller in Oklahoma City and Amy Beth Hanson in Helena, Montana, contributed to this report.