CAÑON CITY, Colo. (AP) — At least 115 decaying bodies were found at a storage facility for a “green” funeral operator, after neighbors reported abhorrent smells emanating from the location in rural southern Colorado, police said Friday, calling it a “disturbing discovery.”
The owner tried to conceal the improper storage of corpses and claimed he was doing taxidermy at the facility, according to a suspension letter sent to him by state regulators that was made public Friday. No one has been arrested or charged yet.
The Return to Nature Funeral Home facility in the small town of Penrose had been unregistered with the state for 10 months on Wednesday when owner Jon Hallford spoke by phone with a state regulator the day after the smells were reported and police launched an investigation
Hallford acknowledged that he had a “problem” at the property, though the Colorado Office of Funeral Home and Crematory Registration document obtained by The Associated Press didn’t explain what Hallford meant with his taxidermy claim or how he tried to conceal improper storage of human remains.
Text messages and phone calls were not answered at the funeral home, which had no working voice mail.
Officials declined to describe the scene inside the Return to Nature Funeral Home facility. A multi-agency effort recover and identify the remains was underway in Penrose, a town of about 3,000 people in the mountains west of Colorado Springs.
On Friday, a sour, rotten stench came from the back of the building, where windows were broken. Coroner’s officials from Fremont County and nearby El Paso County parked their trucks outside and discussed among themselves as they walked around the building.
The funeral home performed “green” burials without embalming chemicals or metal caskets. Local residents said they smelled foul odors around the building for months but thought little of it, assuming a dead animal or septic system was to blame
Funeral home officials were cooperating as investigators sought to determine any criminal wrongdoing, Fremont County Sheriff Allen Cooper said at a news conference.
“Without providing too much detail to avoid further victimizing these families there, the funeral home where the bodies were improperly stored was horrific,” Cooper said.
Some identifications would require taking fingerprints, finding medical or dental records and DNA, Fremont County Coroner Randy Keller said.
“This could take several months. As we identify each decedent, families will be notified as soon as absolutely possible,” Keller said.
Other Colorado county coroners had agreed to help while the FBI and state police and emergency management officials worked at the scene. Meanwhile, Fremont County declared an official disaster to possibly make state funds available for the effort, Keller said.
Family members who have used the funeral home were asked to contact investigators.
The bodies were inside a 2,500-square foot (230-square meter) building with the appearance and dimensions of a standard one-story home.
Authorities declined to say if the building was equipped to properly story bodies. They also wouldn’t disclose in what state the bodies were found or how they were stored. Under Colorado law, green burials are legal but state code requires that any body not buried within 24 hours must be properly refrigerated.
Deputies were called in Tuesday night in reference to a suspicious incident officials haven’t yet described. Fremont County Sheriff’s Office investigators returned the next day with a search warrant and found the remains.
There was no health risk to the public, officials said, at the building with trash bags near the entrance and law enforcement vehicles parked in front. Yellow police tape cordoned off the area and a putrid odor was in the air.
A hearse was parked at the back of the building, in a parking lot overgrown with weeds. Nearby was a post office and a few homes on wide, grassy lots, some with parked semi-trucks.
The license for the facility expired in November of last year, according to a cease and desist order issued Thursday by Colorado state regulators. When reached by regulators, owner Jon Hallford acknowledged that he has a “problem” at the Penrose property and claimed he practiced taxidermy there.
Joyce Pavetti, 73, could see the funeral home from the stoop of her house and said she caught whiffs of a putrid smell in the last few weeks.
“We just assumed it was a dead animal,” she said. On Wednesday night, Pavetti said she could see lights from law enforcement swarming around the building and knew something was going on.
The building had been occupied by different businesses over the years, said Pavetti, who once took yoga classes there. She hasn’t seen anyone in the area recently and noticed the hearse behind the building only in recent months, she said.
Neighbor Ron Alexander thought the smell was coming from a septic tank, adding that Wednesday night’s blur of law enforcement lights “looked like the 4th of July.”
The father of a 25-year-old U.S. Navy serviceman who died last summer said Return to Nature handled his son’s body between the time of its arrival back in Colorado and an Aug. 25 funeral service at Pikes Peak National Cemetery east of Colorado Springs.
“I mean, there’s obviously questions after hearing that there is something going on but there’s not any information that I can go off of to really make any kind of judgement on it,” said Paul Saito Kahler, of Fountain, Colorado.
The Return to Nature Funeral Home provided burial of non-embalmed bodies in biodegradable caskets, shrouds or “nothing at all,” according to its website. The company also provided cremation services. Messages left for the Colorado Springs-based company were not returned.
The company charged $1,895 for a “natural burial.” That doesn’t include the cost of a casket and cemetery space, according to the website.
Return to Nature was established six years ago in Colorado Springs, according to public records.
Fremont County property records show that the funeral home building and lot are owned by Hallfordhomes, LLC, a business with a Colorado Springs address that the Colorado Secretary of State declared delinquent on Oct. 1 for failing to file a routine reporting form that was due at the end of July.
The LLC changed addresses around Colorado Springs three times since its establishment in 2016 with a post office box. Hallfordhomes still owes about $5,000 in 2022 property taxes on its building in Penrose, according to Fremont County records.
Return to Nature Funeral Home was licensed in Colorado Springs in 2017. There were no disciplinary actions against the company listed on a state license database. There was not a separate license for the Penrose facility and it wasn’t known if one was needed. Messages left with licensing authorities were not immediately returned.