Colleen Slevin and Matthew Brown/AP
Investigators who entered a Colorado funeral home where nearly 200 abandoned bodies were found encountered stacks of partially covered human remains, bodily fluids several inches deep on the floor, and flies and maggots throughout the building, an FBI agent testified Thursday.
Prosecutors also revealed text messages sent between the funeral home's owners showing they were under growing financial pressures and had fears that they would be caught for mishandling the bodies. As the bodies accumulated, one of the co-owners even suggested getting rid of them by digging a big hole and treating them with lye or setting them on fire, according to the texts.
Twenty-three of the bodies had death dates from 2019 and 61 were from 2020, FBI agent Andrew Cohen said. The remains included adults, infants and fetuses. They were being stored at room temperature in a neglected building in the small Rocky Mountain town of Penrose, he said.
“It looked like something you’d like to forget but can’t,” Cohen said during a hearing for one of the funeral home's co-owners.
Investigators also found animal remains and bags of packaged concrete, Cohen said. Some relatives of the deceased received fake ashes rather than the cremated remains of their loved ones, prosecutors have said.
Police in November arrested funeral home owners Carie and Jon Hallford in Oklahoma after the married couple allegedly had fled Colorado to avoid prosecution.
The bodies were discovered in early October after neighbors noticed a putrid smell. The Penrose building had “makeshift” refrigeration units but Cohen said those were not operating when the bodies were found. Near the squat building was a post office and a few scattered homes, spaced out between dry grass and empty lots with parked semitrailers.
The Hallfords are accused of abusing corpses, stealing, laundering money and forging documents over several years at the Return to Nature Funeral Home, which was based in Colorado Springs and stored remains in nearby Penrose. They are each 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.
Carie Hallford’s attorney, Michael Stuzynski, did not immediately challenge the evidence from the scene that was presented by prosecutors, except to question cell phone data that prosecutors said placed Carie Hallford at the Penrose facility with her husband. The defense will have another chance to argue against the evidence during a hearing set for next week.
Stuzynski said after the hearing that he could not talk about the case outside of court.
Jon Hallford remained in custody at the El Paso County jail on Thursday after his bond was lowered from $2 million to $100,000 during a hearing last week. His attorney, Adam Steigerwald, did not immediately return a telephone message seeking comment.
Several families who hired Return to Nature to cremate their relatives have told The Associated Press that the FBI confirmed their remains were among the decaying bodies.
Jon Hallford was worried as far back as 2020 about getting caught, according to prosecutors.
“My one and only focus is keeping us out of jail,” said one text message he allegedly wrote.
Other texts included messages between the Hallfords about selling off assets to cover their expenses and worrying about “losing everything” if they were exposed.
In a 2020 exchange, Jon Hallford messaged his wife that they needed to begin “restoring the building in Penrose" and appeared to suggest various ways to get rid of the bodies, according to Kevin Clark, an investigator with the district attorney’s office.
“Options: A, build a new machine ASAP. B, dig a big hole and use lye. Where? C, dig a small hole and build a large fire. Where? D, I go to prison, which is probably going to happen,” the message said, according to Clark. It was not clear what the “new machine” referred to.
In yet another text, from last year, Jon Hallford wrote about dealing with decaying bodies before he appears to give a dinner order.
“I want to take a shower as soon as I get back because while I was making the transfer, I got people juice on me. Want the double cheeseburger, lettuce, wrapped with everything minus tomatoes, please,” the text said according to Clark.
Further details on how the bodies came to be mishandled have not been publicly released after defense attorneys objected to unsealing affidavits in the case.
The discovery of bodies prompted an effort to identify them using fingerprints, dental records, medical hardware and DNA. Officials plan in coming days to level the building where the bodies were found.
The bodies recovered included that of a former Army sergeant first class who was believed to have been buried at a veterans’ cemetery, Cohen said.
Investigators exhumed the wooden casket and found the remains of a person of a different gender inside, he said. The veteran, who was not identified in court, was later given a funeral with full military honors at Pikes Peak National Cemetery, he said.
In December, relatives who knew or feared their loved ones were among the abandoned bodies watched in person for the first time as the Hallfords appeared before a judge. One woman held up a photo of her late son who she thought may have been among the mishandled bodies.
Several dozen sets of remains have not yet been identified, according to Cohen.
Return to Nature started in 2017 and offered cremations and “green” burials without embalming fluids.
The AP previously reported that the Hallfords 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.
Brown reported from Billings, Mont.
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