Relatives watch as the Penrose funeral owners accused of mishandling 190 remains appear in court

· Dec. 5, 2023, 7:27 pm
File photo of the El Paso County judicial complex in Colorado Springs.File photo of the El Paso County judicial complex in Colorado Springs. Jake Brownell / 91.5 KRCC
File photo of the El Paso County judicial complex in Colorado Springs.

By Jesse Bedayn and Mead Gruver/AP and Report for America

Relatives who knew or feared their loved ones were among the 190 abandoned bodies found decomposing in a funeral home watched in person for the first time Tuesday as the owners of the business appeared before a judge.

Jon and Carie Hallford, owners of Return to Nature Funeral Home, are accused of abusing corpses, stealing, laundering money and forging documents. Standing in handcuffs and orange jail clothes, they didn’t speak or enter pleas during a brief hearing.

The funeral home's facility in Penrose is where investigators in early October discovered dozens of stacked bodies. Some had death dates as far back as 2019, according to a federal affidavit.

Family members were falsely told their loved ones were cremated, receiving substitute materials that were not their ashes, court records allege.

In court for a scheduling hearing Tuesday, Heather DeWolf held up a photo of her late son, Zach DeWolf, who died in 2020 at age 33. Return to Nature handled his remains.

“I don’t view them honestly as human at this point. I don’t believe a human could do this,” DeWolf told a reporter.

Though her son's remains had yet to be identified among the many discovered at the facility, she feared the worst: The container she had rocked like a baby, thinking it was her son's ashes, had some other material inside.

"I had not rocked with him since he was a child. And I could put my arms around him and just hold him,” DeWolf said, her eyes watering. “And now, looking back, I don’t know if I was rocking my son or rocking concrete.”

Several families who hired Return to Nature to cremate their loved ones have told The Associated Press that the FBI confirmed to them privately that their loved ones were among the decaying bodies.

How the bodies allegedly were mishandled remained unknown to the wider public Tuesday as defense attorneys objected to the desire of prosecutors to unseal affidavits in the case. El Paso County Magistrate Hilary Gurney said she would defer to a future judge overseeing the case to decide that.

The Hallfords were arrested in Oklahoma last month, after allegedly fleeing Colorado to avoid prosecution. They have been jailed on a $2 million bond. Both have been 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.

Court records say Jon Hallford is being represented by the public defender’s office, which does not comment on cases to the media. Carie Hallford is being represented by attorney Michael Stuzynski, who declined to comment on the case.

After the bodies were removed from the facility in Penrose, about an hour south of Denver, authorities began working to identify the remains using fingerprints, dental records, medical hardware and DNA.

When the director of the state office of Funeral Home and Crematory registration called Jon Hallford a day after the odor was reported, Hallford acknowledged having a “problem” at the site and claimed he practiced taxidermy there, according to an order from state officials dated Oct. 5.

The company, which was started in 2017, offered cremations and “green” burials without embalming fluids and was beset by financial crises. The owners had missed tax payments, 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, according to public records and interviews with people who worked with them.

On the same day the funeral home was searched and the remains were found, Jon Hallford stopped using his phone, according to an FBI affidavit that said he likely turned it off to avoid being found by law enforcement. Several weeks later and facing eviction from a property the couple was renting in Colorado Springs, the Hallfords allegedly told their landlord they would not contest the eviction and “to do what he wanted” with the property they’d left behind, according to the affidavit.

The FBI tracked Carie Hallford’s phone to Oklahoma, at the residence of Jon Hallford’s parents, where they found his car and obtained a federal court warrant for the couple’s arrest for allegedly fleeing Colorado to avoid prosecution.

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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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Gruver contributed to this report from Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Matt Brown contributed from Billings, Montana.

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