(COLORADO SPRINGS) — The unsettling discovery of nearly 200 bodies improperly stored at the Return to Nature Funeral Home in Penrose has plunged families into a state of turmoil.
While the identified individuals that are known so far were all supposed to be cremated, uncertainty looms for those who used the funeral home’s burial services.
“Are there additional people buried with my husband?… Is he even where he’s supposed to be?” Those are the questions plaguing the mind of Brittany Nethery, a Colorado Springs native, who experienced discrepancies during her husband Spencer’s burial earlier this year, leaving her wondering if he was actually laid to rest in his casket.
When Spencer died in February, Nethery thought it would be appropriate to go with the environmentally friendly pine box casket offered by Return to Nature, since Spencer loved the outdoors and nature. Nethery never saw her husband at the burial service since they performed a closed-casket ceremony.
Reflecting on her experience, Nethery said the inconsistencies began with her attempts to communicate and receive confirmation from the funeral home owners, Jon and Carie Hallford, that Spencer had arrived at their facility from the coroner’s office.
Despite those specific requests and numerous calls, the Hallfords never notified her. Nethery decided to go in person, where they did end up confirming his arrival, but didn’t specify which location (the company had a Colorado Springs office in addition to the Penrose location).
“They hadn’t even notified us that they had a sister facility where they may have been potentially storing people,” said Nethery.
At her in-person visit, and in her state of grief, she requested to hold her husband’s hand one final time, but Carie Hallford denied her request, stating that he was being prepped for natural burial. Nethery then asked again on a separate occasion, to which Carie told her it would be illegal for her to see her husband.
“I didn’t press the issue harder. She did not provide any documentation or proof that that was not an option for me. In retrospect, I do wish that I researched more, but I was pretty consumed and paralyzed by grief at that point,” said Nethery.
There are currently no state or federal laws that would prevent Nethery from seeing her husband. It is also not standard practice for cemeteries to check inside a casket prior to burial.
“I don’t know if I will be able to rest peacefully without that confirmation and knowing that my husband is where he’s supposed to be and that he was laid to rest the way he should have been… If Spencer is not in the pine box? I would suspect that he is either in that building or potentially somewhere else where Jon and Carie may have managed their storage,” said Nethery.
According to the latest information on Nov. 8 from the Fremont County Coroner, Randy Keller, 110 individuals have been positively identified, 80 are yet to be identified, and 25 loved ones have been reunited with their families. FOX21 News reached out to the coroner’s office for more updated information but has yet to receive a response.
Based on the information given thus far, the people who have been identified were loved ones who were intended for cremation.
“The bulk of these that have been identified appear to be cremations. However, there is that uncertainty for us and anybody who used their services,” said Nethery.
In light of the unsettling revelations, Nethery is now seeking clarity on behalf of others who used the Return to Nature burial services, and questioning if there will be an investigation to ascertain the identities of those in the caskets.
“If there’s enough probable cause to move forward with exhuming loved ones, then I would like to know what that process would look like… I feel we are left in a position where we may never know unless they decide to investigate the burials further,” said Nethery, who is now investigating her husband’s fingerprints and awaiting results from the coroner.
Ideally, Spencer would be in the pine box. However, Nethery says that regardless of this best-case scenario, irreparable harm has already been inflicted upon her and other families. The anguish and emotional wounds stemming from the uncertainty surrounding her deceased husband have resurfaced, intensifying the grief she was already enduring.
For the future, Nethery is also calling for broader legislative reforms in Colorado, such as establishing robust laws and standardized protocols for funeral homes, ensuring transparency and accountability in the future.
“Because of the limited laws and regulations, I’m fearful that the Hallfords won’t be held accountable,” said Nethery.
The Hallfords were arrested in Wagoner, Oklahoma on Nov. 8, on suspicion of committing the crimes of Abuse of a Corpse, Theft, Money Laundering, and Forgery, which are all felonies. Their bond has been set at $2 million each, and sentencing options for them range from prison to probation. Since the Return to Nature Funeral Home’s main location is in Colorado Springs, the case will be prosecuted in El Paso County by the 4th Judicial District Attorney’s Office
FOX21 reached out to both the FBI and the 4th Judicial District Attorney’s Office asking if there would be an investigation into the people who were buried using Return to Nature’s services, neither of which directly answered the question.
In the statement from the FBI, the agency said: “Identification of the decedents recovered from the Return to Nature Funeral Home continues,” and anyone who dealt with the funeral home since 2019 is urged to complete this questionnaire: https://forms.fbi.gov/penrose-funeral-home.
The 4th Judicial District Attorney’s Office declined to share any information related to the investigation.
If you believe you or your loved one might have been impacted and you have further questions, please send an email to email@example.com. According to the FBI, this is the most effective way to connect with resources; a person will respond to all emails from family members.