Updated at 7:09 p.m. on October 17, 2023.
Officials in Fremont County have increased the number of improperly stored remains discovered at a funeral home in Penrose to "at least 189 individuals." Initial reports put the number at 115.
The remains were found by authorities responding to a report of a foul odor at the Return to Nature Funeral Home inside a decrepit building.
“While the investigation for this incident continues, we also remain focused on the impacted families,” said Fremont County Sheriff Allen Cooper. “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.”
All of the remains were relocated to the El Paso County Coroner's Office last week, where work to identify them has been underway with the help of an FBI team that gets deployed to mass casualty events like airline crashes. Victim advocates will begin notifying families of the deceased in the next several days. Officials say there is no timeline for completing that process.
“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,” said Fremont County Coroner Randy Keller.
Cooper described the scene as “horrific.”
The discovery came after the owners of the Return to Nature Funeral Home missed tax payments in recent months, got evicted from one of their properties and sued for unpaid bills by a crematory that quit doing business with them almost a year ago. The business advertised “green” burials, performed without embalming chemicals or metal caskets.
Earlier this month when local residents reported a foul smell in the area.
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 owner Jon Hallford. He acknowledged having a “problem” at the Penrose site and claimed he practiced taxidermy there, according to an order from state officials dated Oct. 5.
A criminal investigation into the situation is ongoing.
The business, which advertised cremations and “green” burials, performed without embalming chemicals or metal caskets, kept doing business as its problems mounted.
Under Colorado law, green burials are legal, but state code requires that any body not buried within 24 hours must be properly refrigerated.
Colorado has some of the weakest rules for funeral homes in the nation with no routine inspections or qualification requirements for funeral home operators.
As of last week, more than 120 families worried their relatives could be among the remains had contacted law enforcement about the case.
El Paso County Coroner Leon Kelly has said it could take weeks to identify the remains found.
There’s no indication state regulators visited the site or contacted Hallford until more than 10 months after the Penrose funeral home’s registration expired. State lawmakers gave regulators the authority to inspect funeral homes without the owners’ consent last year, but no additional money was provided for increased inspections.
Impacted families are asked to complete the questionnaire to assist in the process at https://forms.fbi.gov/penrose-funeral-home
Anyone with further questions or those who believe their loved ones might have been impacted are asked to email [email protected].
For those without access to email, Fremont County continues to operate a telephone hotline for families at (719) 276-7421
AP Reporters Jesse Bedayn and Matthew Brown contributed to this story.
Bedayn is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
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