DENVER (AP) — As legal and financial troubles piled up at the Colorado funeral home where authorities last week discovered at least 115 decomposing bodies, the troubles went unnoticed by state officials who have long struggled to effectively oversee the industry.
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 operators of the Return to Nature Funeral Home didn’t pay their taxes, got evicted from one of their properties and got sued for unpaid bills by a crematory that quit doing business with them almost a year ago, according to public records and interviews.
None of the problems appeared to attract the attention of regulators, who hadn’t even checked on the company after November when its state registration expired. That registration allowed Return to Nature Funeral Home to operate in the small town of Penrose where the bodies were found.
Stricter regulations might not have prevented the mishap, but they can ensure problems are discovered more quickly, said Chris Farmer, general counsel for the National Funeral Directors Association.
“You catch it at six or eight bodies and not at 115,” Farmer said.
‘Green’ burials advertised at funeral home
Return to Nature, which offered cremations and “green” burials without embalming fluids, kept doing business as its problems mounted. Last week authorities responding to an “abhorrent smell” entered the funeral home’s neglected building with a search warrant and found the decomposing bodies.
More than 120 families worried their relatives could be among the remains have contacted law enforcement about the case, said Micki Trost with the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
Efforts to identify the remains began this week with help from an FBI team that gets deployed to mass casualty events like airline crashes. Details on what they’ve found haven’t been released. Fremont Sheriff Allen Cooper last week described the scene as “horrific.”
There’s no indication state regulators visited the site or contacted owners Jon and Carie Hallford until more than 10 months after the Penrose funeral home’s registration expired. State lawmakers last year gave regulators the authority to inspect funeral homes without the owners’ consent, but no additional money was provided for increased inspections.
A day after the foul odor was reported, the director of the state office of Funeral Home and Crematory registration spoke on the phone with Jon Hallford. He acknowledged having a “problem” at the Penrose site and claimed he practiced taxidermy there, according to an Oct. 5 order from state officials.
Improper storage of corpses alleged
The order also alleged Hallford tried to conceal the improper storage of corpses. That document and a second Oct. 5 notice for Hallford to cease and desist operating the Penrose site are the only known correspondence sent by state officials to Return to Nature, from the time it lost its registration to the discovery of the bodies.
No arrests have been made in the case.
Attempts to reach the Hallfords have been unsuccessful. Numerous text messages to the funeral home seeking comment went unanswered. No one at the business picked up the phone and there was no working voicemail.
Colorado’s Department of Regulatory Agencies, which oversees funeral homes, declined to answer questions about the case and did not immediately release documents requested by The Associated Press.
Mary Simons of Florence, Colorado said she had a good experience with Return to Nature after her mother died in 2018. She asked the funeral home to cremate the remains, with Medicaid covering the costs. She went back when her husband, also on Medicaid, died in August. She was asked to pay upfront and told she’d be reimbursed when the funeral company got paid by Medicaid.
“That was like my first red flag,” said Simons.
“I was a housewife, there’s no money here,” she recalled her brother telling the company. “We are just going to wait for Medicaid.”
Return to Nature insisted, asking for half payments. A week before law enforcement raided the funeral home the company sent her a $1,411 invoice. Her husband’s ashes never arrived and she can’t help but think his body is among the 115 law enforcement is trying to identify.
Colorado funeral homes aren’t routinely inspected
Unlike nearly all other states, Colorado’s funeral homes aren’t routinely inspected. Those who run them don’t have to graduate high school, pass an exam or apprentice.
A 2022 state law permits the agency overseeing funeral homes to inspect facilities at random or following complaints. Many other states perform annual inspections that entail entering the premises and have educational requirements, such as a degree in mortuary science, a licensing exam or an apprenticeship.
State Sen. Dylan Roberts co-sponsored the 2022 law after bodies were mishandled in his district. He said lawmakers were working to change the rules but did not want to overly disrupt the industry.
Oftentimes “there’s just not the resources or the manpower to be able to provide inspectors to go out and do regular inspections,” said Farmer with the funeral director’s association.
A man who worked at Return to Nature with the Hallfords told The Associated Press he retired more than a year ago, unaware of any financial problems.
“At that time everything was perfect,” John “Jack” Dhooghe said, adding that the Hallfords, who previously ran an Oklahoma funeral home, treated clients with dignity and respect.
Return to Nature relocated to Penrose from Colorado Springs more than a year ago, he said.
The funeral home was later evicted from its Colorado Springs location in May for not paying rent, according to court documents and landlord Mike Kenney with Kenney and Company, which he said is owed $120,000. Jon and Carie Hallford, who Kenney said also lived at the property, filed a counterclaim with allegations including breach of contract and intimidation, according to court filings.
Kenney said the Hallfords put him off by saying they were waiting to be paid for services they performed for the Federal Emergency Management Agency during the coronavirus pandemic. FEMA officials did not immediately respond to questions about the company.
‘Nobody checking up on these funeral homes’
Return to Nature failed to pay more than $5,000 in 2022 property taxes on the Penrose location, according to public records. In June, a judge issued a $21,000 judgment against Return to Nature for not paying for “a couple hundred” cremations, according to public records and attorney Lisa Epps with Wilbert Funeral Services. Wilbert Funeral Services had been doing cremations on Return to Nature’s behalf.
An attorney involved in cases against funeral homes that improperly stored and sold bodies and body parts said he wasn’t surprised when he heard about the bodies found in Penrose.
“There’s nobody checking up on these funeral homes,” said attorney David TeSelle.
Scant details from law enforcement make it hard to judge what the potential penalties could be in the Penrose case, he said. The owners could’ve found themselves in a tough financial spot and failed to properly care for the bodies over a few weeks, he said.
El Paso County Coroner Leon Kelly said it could take weeks to identify the remains from Return to Nature.
“We will do everything in our power to return their loved ones to them as quickly as possible,” Kelly said in a statement. “The large number and condition of those remains will make this challenging.”
Hanson reported from Helena, Montana, Brown from Billings, Montana, and Gruver from Cheyenne, Wyoming.