Las Animas County Coroner accused of improper secret burials, misuse of funds

· Dec. 7, 2023, 3:04 pm
TRINIDAD-COURTHOUSETRINIDAD-COURTHOUSEHart Van Denburg/CPR News
The Las Animas County Courthouse in downtown Trinidad, Colorado, Feb. 27, 2021.

Updated: Friday, Dec. 8, 2023 8:30 a.m.

The owner of a funeral home in Trinidad has called for a state investigation into the Las Animas County coroner, who he said improperly buried bodies and misused county funds.

Thomas Murphy with Trinidad Mullare-Murphy Funeral Home said during a special meeting with the Las Animas County Commission earlier this week that he was present when two bodies were discovered during the exhumation of a single grave at a rural cemetery near Trinidad this fall. One of the people has yet to be identified.

Burying multiple bodies in one grave is illegal in Colorado without permission from the family of the deceased. Murphy said the bodies were buried on top of one another, still in body bags.

Murphy said there are more than 100 rural, unmaintained cemeteries in Las Animas County.

"If you had a criminal mind and you wanted to get rid of a body, the most obvious place to take it would be to a rural cemetery where people might see there's been a recent grave dug, but they wouldn't know that it's not something that was legit," he said. "And who's going to dig up a rural cemetery?"

Murphy said he and Carl Mestas, who owns the cemetery property, confronted Las Animas County Coroner Dominic Verquer over the burials. Verquer allegedly admitted to burying two people at the cemetery without notifying Mestas or having proper documentation.

Murphy later filed an open records request that revealed there are actually four bodies buried at the site. All were buried without the knowledge of the property owner and without burial permits or required paperwork.

Verquer allegedly threatened to have Murphy, Mestas, and others arrested for looking into the illicit burials. Murphy, however, claims he has evidence of more misconduct.

During the meeting with commissioners, Murphy said he planned to circulate a petition calling on the state attorney general and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation to conduct DNA tests on all remains handled by Verquer's office over the past two years.

"Why is the coroner putting his name on the death certificate as the funeral home and then burying bodies," Murphy asked.

That act in itself is not illegal, but Murphy said it raises questions about possible activities that are. The mysterious graves were allegedly dug by the county's road and bridge department, as is customary in Las Animas County. Yet Murphy said the county told him it has no record of the burials taking place.

"Anybody can act as a funeral director, but why is he doing it? And is he getting paid?" Murphy said.

The allegations have been heightened by concerns from the family of a missing man in the area, who are wondering whether the unidentified body found in Starkville Cemetery could be David Sheir. Sheir, who would now be 82 years old, went missing in February 2022 less than two miles from the cemetery.

The Colorado Bureau of Investigation says the agency has not received a request to investigate. The Las Animas County Coroner has not responded to a request for comment.

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