Southern Colorado funeral home owner accused of abandoning dozens of bodies may be close to leaving jail

Funeral Home Improper Body Storage
A Fremont County, Colo., Sheriff’s Department vehicle sits outside a closed funeral home where 115 bodies are stored, Friday, Oct. 6, 2023, in Penrose, Colo. Authorities are investigating the improper storage of human remains at the southern Colorado funeral home that performs “green” burials without embalming chemicals or metal caskets. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

By Colleen Slevin and Mean Gruver/AP

An owner of a Penrose funeral home accused of abandoning nearly 200 bodies in a building for years was worried as far back as 2020 about getting caught, a prosecutor said Thursday at a hearing where the prosecution objected to lowering his bond.

“My one and only focus is keeping us out of jail,” said one text message allegedly written by Jon Hallford that a prosecutor read in court.

Arguing for maintaining a high bond for Jon Hallford, Senior Deputy District Attorney Rachael Powell said Hallford wrote that text in May of 2020. Some of the decomposing human remains in the Return to Nature Funeral Home facility were labeled as dating to 2019, four years before the bodies' discovery by authorities this past October.

In November, police arrested Hallford and his wife, Carie Hallford, in Oklahoma after they allegedly fled Colorado to avoid prosecution. They are accused of abusing corpses, stealing, laundering money and forging documents and were jailed on $2 million bond.

Judge William Moller lowered bond Thursday for Jon Hallford to $100,000 and said he would be required to wear a GPS monitor, if released, to track his whereabouts. Carie Hallford’s next court appearance is set for Jan. 11.

In another text message read by Powell in court, Hallford allegedly wrote in October 2020: “I go to prison, which is probably what’s going to happen,” Powell said.

Moller de-emphasized the text messages' relevance, however, saying he did not have the full context in which they were written.

“It is difficult for me to make a finding based on a text message that is picked out from a number of them,” Moller said.

Hallford is an honorably discharged U.S. Army veteran with no significant prior convictions, his attorney, Adam Steigerwald, pointed out.

Return to Nature Funeral Home was based in Colorado Springs and had a facility for storing remains in nearby Penrose. Some of the town's 4,000 residents reported foul odors coming from the building before authorities went in and found the corpses.

Both Hallfords are 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.

The discovery of bodies prompted an effort to identify them using fingerprints, dental records, medical hardware and DNA. With their work on the scene wrapping up, officials plan to level the building in coming weeks.

How so many bodies allegedly came to be mishandled remains unknown to the wider public while defense attorneys object to unsealing affidavits in the case.

Several who hired Return to Nature to cremate loved ones have told The Associated Press that the FBI confirmed that their remains were among the decaying bodies. Return to Nature gave some of them substitute materials that were not their loved ones’ ashes, prosecutors allege.

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

Carie Hallford is scheduled to appear in court separately next week.

In December, relatives who knew or feared their loved ones were among the abandoned bodies watched in person for the first time as Hallfords appeared before a judge. One woman held up a photo of her late son whom she thought may have been among the mishandled bodies.

Return to Nature started in 2017 and offered cremations and “green” burials without embalming fluids. The owners 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.