The owner of a Colorado funeral home and his wife were arrested on Wednesday on charges linked to the discovery of 190 sets of decaying remains at one of their facilities, including some that apparently had been languishing there for four years.
Jon and Carie Hallford were jailed in Oklahoma on a 2.0 million US dollar (£1.63 million) bond on suspicion of four felonies: abuse of a corpse, theft, money laundering and forgery – after their arrest in Wagoner, east of Tulsa.
They could not be reached for comment and did not have attorneys listed in jail records. Neither has a listed personal phone number, and the funeral home’s number no longer works.
During a news conference in Colorado Springs announcing the charges, district attorney Michael Allen said authorities would not be releasing many details about the case in order to protect the integrity of the ongoing investigation.
But he said the charging documents, which will remain sealed, contain “absolutely shocking” information it has already uncovered.
Some allegations have emerged, including families accusing Return to Nature Funeral Home of giving them fake ashes instead of their relatives’ remains.
Mr Allen and others described an ongoing process of identifying the remains using fingerprints, dental records, medical hardware and, if necessary, DNA.
They have identified 110 of the 190 sets of remains, and have returned 25 to those people’s families.
Investigators are in contact with 137 families, and Allen asked for anyone who might have worked for or with the Hallfords or who patronised their funeral homes to come forward.
He also asked relatives of the yet-unidentified dead to contact their late loved ones’ dentists for records that might help the investigation.
Jon Hallford’s funeral home business is based in Colorado Springs and has a facility in Penrose, a small town about 100 miles south of Denver.
Authorities found the remains on October 4 while responding to a report of an “abhorrent smell” near the Penrose building.
Officials initially estimated there were about 115 bodies inside, but the number increased to 189 after they finished removing all the remains in mid-October.
The total rose to 190 on Wednesday, though authorities did not explain the increase.
A day after the odour was reported, the director of the state office of Funeral Home and Crematory registration spoke by phone with Jon Hallford.
He tried to conceal the improper storage of corpses at his business, acknowledged having a “problem” at the site and claimed he practiced taxidermy there, according to an order from state officials dated October 5.
It was not clear if any of the charges pertained to the handling of bodies at the firm’s Colorado Springs location.
The couple’s arrests involved funeral home operations over a four-year period through September, the families were told.
Relatives of people whose remains were handled by the funeral home have feared that their loved ones were not cremated and were instead among the remains that authorities found.
They said death certificates indicated that the remains were cremated at one of two crematories, but both crematories told the Associated Press that they weren’t performing cremations for Return to Nature at the time of the dates on the certificates.
At the news conference, Crystina Page clutched a red urn with what Return to Nature told her were the ashes of her 20-year-old son, David, who was shot and killed by law enforcement in 2019.
For four years, she carried the urn from the marble halls of the Colorado Capitol to Washington DC, as she advocated for police reform.
Her son’s body was identified among the 190 discovered and was set to be cremated later on Wednesday.
“For four years, I’ve marched all over this country with this urn believing it to be my son,” said Ms Page, but “my son has been laying there rotting for four years – it’s the most horrendous feeling I’ve ever had in my life.”
Page started a private Facebook group for effected families, which recently reached 50 members.
The company, which was started in 2017 and offered cremations and “green” burials without embalming fluids, kept doing business even as its financial and legal problems mounted in recent years.
The owners had missed tax payments in recent months, were evicted from one of their properties and were sued for unpaid bills by a crematorium that quit doing business with them almost a year ago, according to public records and interviews with people who worked with them.
Colorado has some of the weakest oversight of funeral homes in the United States with no routine inspections or qualification requirements for funeral home operators.
There was no indication state regulators visited the site or contacted Hallford until more than 10 months after the Penrose funeral home’s registration expired in November 2022.