FBI Agent Describes Horrific Find at Funeral Home

In text message, co-owner said one option was to 'dig a big hole and use lye'
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jan 12, 2024 9:44 AM CST
FBI Agent Describes Horrific Find at Funeral Home
A hearse and van sit outside the Return to Nature Funeral Home, Oct. 6, 2023, in Penrose, Colorado.   (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

Investigators who entered a Colorado funeral home where nearly 200 abandoned bodies were found encountered stacks of partially covered human remains, bodily fluids several inches deep on the floor, and flies and maggots throughout the building, an FBI agent testified Thursday. Prosecutors also revealed text messages sent between the funeral home's owners showing they were under growing financial pressures and had fears that they would be caught for mishandling the bodies, the AP reports. As the bodies accumulated, one of the co-owners even suggested getting rid of them by digging a big hole and treating them with lye or setting them on fire, according to the texts.

Twenty-three of the bodies had death dates from 2019 and 61 were from 2020, FBI agent Andrew Cohen said. The remains included adults, infants, and fetuses. They were being stored at room temperature in a neglected building in the small Rocky Mountain town of Penrose, he said. "It looked like something you'd like to forget but can't," Cohen said during a hearing for one of the funeral home's co-owners. Investigators also found animal remains and bags of packaged concrete, Cohen said. Some relatives of the deceased received fake ashes rather than the cremated remains of their loved ones, prosecutors have said.

Return to Nature started in 2017 and offered cremations and "green" burials without embalming fluids. The bodies were discovered in early October after neighbors noticed a putrid smell. Police in November arrested funeral home owners Carie and Jon Hallford in Oklahoma after the married couple allegedly fled Colorado to avoid prosecution. They are each charged with approximately 190 counts of abuse of a corpse, five counts of theft, four counts of money laundering, and over 50 counts of forgery. Carie Hallford's attorney, Michael Stuzynski, did not immediately challenge the evidence from the scene that was presented by prosecutors except to question cell phone data that prosecutors said placed Carie Hallford at the Penrose facility with her husband.

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Jon Hallford was worried as far back as 2020 about getting caught, according to prosecutors. In a 2020 exchange, Jon Hallford messaged his wife that they needed to begin "restoring the building in Penrose" and appeared to suggest various ways to get rid of the bodies, according to Kevin Clark, an investigator with the district attorney's office. "Options: A, build a new machine ASAP. B, dig a big hole and use lye. Where? C, dig a small hole and build a large fire. Where? D, I go to prison, which is probably going to happen," the message said, according to Clark. It was not clear what the "new machine" referred to.

(More funeral home stories.)

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