Bodies of Evidence

When my dad passed, our family had to plan for the burial of his cremains. Through sheer luck, the plot on the other side of my grandparents’ tombstone in the Holy Spirit cemetery was available. It’s a beautiful spot under a tree in the back near the YMCA, where he loved to swim.

It is very reassuring to know he will be at rest in the perfect spot.

Not every family is so lucky, however.

In 2017, Jon and Carie Hallford opened Return to Nature Funeral Home in Penrose, Colorado, which is about 100 miles south of Denver. The home offers cremations and “green burials,” where the body is neither cremated nor prepared with chemicals such as embalming fluids. The body is then placed in a biodegradable coffin and interred without a concrete burial vault to allow for the complete decomposition of the body and its natural return to the soil. If the body is not buried within 24 hours of death, it must be properly refrigerated.

Return to Nature owns a 2,500-square-foot building in Penrose with the appearance and dimensions of a standard one-story home. When neighbors complained to authorities about an “abhorrent smell” coming from the decrepit building, Zen Mayhugh, the director of the Colorado Office of Funeral Home and Crematory registration, called Jon Hallford. He acknowledged having a “problem” at the site, but claimed it was because he practiced taxidermy there.

Not satisfied with Hallford’s answer, authorities obtained a search warrant to investigate the funeral home on October 4. Fremont County Sheriff Allen Cooper described what they found as “horrific,” as he and his deputies discovered the remains of at least 189 people in the building in various states of decay.

With the assistance of an FBI team that gets deployed to mass casualty events like airline crashes, Cooper’s office removed all the bodies from the site as of October 13. However, officials said the numbers could change again as the identification process continues, which Fremont County Coroner Randy Keller said could take several months. Officials will identify the remains using fingerprints, medical or dental records, and DNA testing.

Because of the unknown timeframe to identify all the bodies, Keller said he wanted to provide accurate information to families “to prevent further victimization as they continue to grieve.” He also said his office intends to focus on showing respect for the deceased and their families during the process.

Since the news broke, families who did business with Return to Nature have come forward voicing concerns over what happened to their deceased loved ones. Local officials have begun notifying family members as the remains are identified.

Numerous families have also come forward alleging Return to Nature provided them with fabricated cremation records for their loved ones and were given fake ashes comprised of dry concrete.

The discovery of the bodies came more than 10 months after the funeral home’s registration expired. The Hallfords 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. Law enforcement officials said the couple is cooperating with investigators.

Potential charges under state law could include misdemeanor violations of mortuary regulations and misdemeanor fraud, which could result in up to 2 years in jail. Each body could result in separate charges, meaning potential fines could exceed $1 million. Potential penalties from federal charges could be more severe.

When I die, I want to be cremated so for once I can say I have a smoking hot body.

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Reg P. Wydeven

Elder Law and Estate Planning Attorney at McCarty Law LLP
Hoping to follow in his father’s footsteps from a young age, Reg’s practice primarily consists of advising individuals on estate planning, estate settlement and elder law matters. As Reg represents clients in matters like guardianship proceedings and long-term care admissions, he feels grateful to be able to offer families thorough legal help in their time of need.

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