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Colorado funeral home owner, wife arrested on charges linked to mishandling of at least 189 bodies

DENVER (AP) — The owner of a Colorado funeral home and his wife were arrested Wednesday after the decaying remains of at least 189 people were recently found at his facility.

Jon and Carrie Hallford were arrested in Wagoner, Oklahoma, on suspicion of four felonies — abuse of a corpse, theft, money laundering and forgery — District Attorney Michael Allen said in a news release after at least some of the aggrieved families were told.

Jon Hallford was being held at the Muskogee County, Oklahoma, jail, but his wife wasn’t listed as being there, according to a man who answered a call to the jail but refused to give his name. Jon Hallford doesn’t have an attorney listed in the jail’s records, and neither he nor his wife could immediately be reached for comment. Neither has a personal phone number listed, and the funeral home’s number no longer works.

Jon Hallford owns Return to Nature Funeral Home in Penrose, a small town about 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Denver. The remains were found Oct. 4 by authorities responding to a report of an “abhorrent smell” inside the company’s decrepit building. Officials initially estimated there were about 115 bodies inside, but the number later increased to 189 after they finished removing all the remains in mid-October.

A day after the odor was reported, the director of the state office of Funeral Home and Crematory registration spoke on the 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 Oct. 5.

The funeral home also had a location in Colorado Springs, but it wasn’t clear if any of the charges pertained to the handling of bodies at that 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 weren’t cremated and were instead among the remains that authorities found. They said death certificates indicated 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.

One of the aggrieved family members, Tanya Wilson, said her mother’s body was among the neglected remains found last month and that ashes that Return to Nature told her family were her mother’s were not. After law-enforcement identified the body of her mother, who cooked unbeatable Korean dishes and sometimes worked three jobs to keep the family afloat, they gave Wilson the jewelry left on the body. Some substance was left on the bracelet, she said.

“I don’t think any amount of jail/prison time will justify my brother having to clean my mother’s rotting flesh off her bracelet that they gave back to us. Nothing,” Wilson said in a text to the AP. Regarding the arrests, she said, “It’s just one step in a long process. I don’t feel any satisfaction from this.”

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 crematory 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 nation with no routine inspections or qualification requirements for funeral home operators.

There’s 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. State lawmakers gave regulators the authority to inspect funeral homes without the owners’ consent last year, but no additional money was provided for increased inspections.

One family has filed a lawsuit accusing Return to Nature and the Hallfords of negligence, fraud, intentionally inflicting emotional distress and violating several Colorado laws, among other allegations.

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Associated Press writer Ken Miller in Oklahoma City and Amy Hanson in Helena, Montana, contributed to this report.

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