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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

189 decomposing bodies found at funeral home offering green burials

By Timothy Bella Washington Post

Nearly 200 decomposed bodies have been removed from a Colorado funeral home that offers green burial services, authorities said Tuesday, as more remains have been discovered weeks after a report of “an abhorrent smell” coming from the property initially led investigators to the decayed remains of more than 100 people.

Teams removed the remains of at least 189 people from the Return to Nature Funeral Home in Penrose, Colo., and transported them to the El Paso County Coroner’s Office, according to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. All of the remains found at the funeral home, about 100 miles south of Denver, were removed as of Friday, but authorities stressed that the body count could change as they continue to identify the decedents.

The funeral home has faced questions this month after investigators found that 115 human remains were being improperly stored on the property. Jon Hallford, the owner of the funeral home, “attempted to conceal the improper storage of human remains” on the property, leading to state regulators suspending the Colorado Springs-based funeral home’s license, officials wrote in a letter dated Oct. 5. Hallford acknowledged to a funeral home regulator that “he has a ‘problem’ at the property,” and “claimed that he practices taxidermy” there, according to the letter.

Fremont County Sheriff Allen Cooper has described the scene inside the 2,500-square-foot area, which has the appearance and dimension of a one-story home, as “horrific.” Cooper told reporters this month that the scene of the “very disturbing discovery” was so bad that a paramedic developed a rash and had to be medically evaluated.

“While the investigation for this incident continues, we also remain focused on the impacted families,” Cooper said in a statement Tuesday. “We want to do all we can to provide the families the support they need as we shift to the next phase in this process.”

Authorities said they are working to confirm identities and notify surviving family members, noting that DNA testing could take months. The process is expected to begin “in the next several days,” the CBI said, but there is no timeline for completion.

“We are conducting extensive coordination efforts as we focus on the identification of the decedents and provide notifications to ensure the families are given accurate information to prevent further victimization as they continue to grieve their loved ones,” Fremont County Coroner Randy Keller said in a statement.

It’s unclear whether criminal charges will be brought against the funeral home operator. After the initial remains were found, Cooper said there were no arrests or charges, and that Hallford, whom the sheriff did not name at the time, was cooperating with investigators.

Neither Hallford, 43, nor a CBI spokesman immediately responded to requests for comment Wednesday morning.

Colorado has some of the weakest oversight laws in the United States when it comes to funeral homes. Jessica Koth, a spokeswoman for the National Funeral Directors Association, told the Colorado Springs Gazette that Colorado is the only state that does not “require some minimal level of education and training in order to be licensed.” There’s no indication that state regulators visited Return to Nature or contacted Hallford until more than 10 months after the funeral home’s registration expired in November 2022, according to the Associated Press.

What’s happening in Penrose is at least the second high-profile funeral home case in Colorado in recent years. Megan Hess, the former owner of Sunset Mesa funeral home in Montrose, was sentenced in January to 20 years in prison after she pleaded guilty to stealing the bodies or body parts of hundreds of decedents. The Colorado Attorney General’s Office said Hess sold the bodies and body parts to body broker services between 2010 and 2018.

Hallford opened his green mortuary business in Colorado Springs in 2017 after having some previous experience in Oklahoma, where he worked as a funeral director at his family’s funeral home. Hallford also made headlines in 2006, when he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor gun charge while running for city council in Muskogee, Okla. The charge stemmed from a prank in which Hallford and friends invaded a slumber party wearing masks and brandishing firearms. He later admitted to Tulsa World that he used “very bad judgment” but argued that the timing of the charge was politically motivated.

A green burial is when a person’s remains are put in the soil in a manner that does not inhibit decomposition. Green burials are legal in Colorado as an environmentally sensitive alternative to funerals, but any body not buried within 24 hours must be properly refrigerated, according to state code. “Green Burial is a natural way of caring for your loved one with minimal environmental impact,” the funeral home said on its website.

The Return to Nature Funeral Home charged customers $1,895 for a natural burial and graveside ceremony, which did not include a casket or cemetery space, and $1,290 for a cremation. A casket had been made out of a cardboard box and burlap for one customer, according to the Gazette. The funeral home announced that it had ended its cremation service last July.

On Oct. 3, there was a report of “an abhorrent smell” coming from the property that got the attention of the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies (DORA). Neighbors nearby had smelled the stench coming from the funeral home for weeks.

“We just assumed it was a dead animal,” Joyce Pavetti, 73, told the Associated Press.

The day after the report was made, Zen Mayhugh, program director of the Office of Funeral Home and Crematory Registration, called Hallford. That’s when the funeral homeowner admitted that he had a “problem” at the Penrose property. Hours after the phone call, law enforcement executed a search warrant at the funeral home and determined that human remains were being improperly stored.

“Jon Hallford attempted to conceal improper storage of human remains at the Penrose property,” Mayhugh wrote in the Oct. 5 letter. “Pending the outcome of said proceedings, it is further ordered that Return to Nature Funeral Home immediately cease, desist, and refrain from any further acts or activities for which a registration to practice as a funeral establishment is required by the laws of the state of Colorado.”

The FBI is asking people to fill out an online survey if they think their loved ones’ remains might have been improperly stored at the Return to Nature Funeral Home.