Authorities on Tuesday reported removing the improperly stored remains of at least 189 people from a southern Colorado funeral home where the owner said he practiced taxidermy.
The home, the Return to Nature Funeral Home in Penrose, Colorado, had claimed to conduct environmentally friendly “green” burials. It first came to the attention of local authorities after reports of a putrid smell pouring from the company’s neglected building. On October 4, local and federal authorities executed a search warrant and initially found 115 improperly stored bodies at the facility, which is around 100 miles south of Denver and sits in Fremont County.
That same day, a Colorado state official— Zen Mayhugh, the program director of the Office Funeral Home and Crematory Registration—spoke directly with the owner and operator of Return to Nature, Jon Hallford. In the conversation, Hallford acknowledged that he had a “problem” at the facility and claimed he practiced taxidermy there.
In an Order of Summary Suspension from the state, Mayhugh noted that the facility has operated without a license since last November. He also reported that Hallford attempted to conceal the improper storage of human remains at the facility. The order barred Return to Nature from continuing operations.
In an October 6 press conference, Fremont County Sheriff Allen Cooper said what they discovered while executing the search warrant was “very disturbing” and “horrific,” according to the Cañon City Daily Record. One deputy coroner immediately developed a rash upon entering the facility and needed to seek medical treatment, but later recovered.
Mark Michalek, FBI Denver’s special agent in charge, added at the press conference that “We all have the same questions,” including the identity and total number of victims, as well as why the situation occurred. The investigation is expected to take several months and is said to focus on supporting the affected families.
Cooper indicated at the time that the facility was a vast 2,500 square feet and would first require “hazard mitigation” before investigators could begin their work in earnest. The investigation was planned to include federal forensic teams and specialized equipment. Once made safe, the facility would be processed as a crime scene and, after evidence is collected and documented, human remains would be treated in a “dignified way” and securely transported for identification and family notification.
In an update Tuesday, Cooper and Fremont County Coroner Randy Keller reported the updated number of remains found, stated as “at least 189 individuals,” which have now been removed to the county coroner’s office. But, they cautioned that “The total number of decedents could change as the identification and investigative processes continue.”
Family notifications are expected to begin “in the next several days,” the update said.
Last week, The Denver Post reported the case of Jessie Elliot who was a client of the Return to Nature Funeral Home in Colorado Springs, which was also run by Hallford and his wife, Carie. Elliot turned over the remains of his 76-year-old mother, a Buddhist environmentalist who requested her ashes be spread on the Hawaiian island of O‘ahu.
Elliot was quickly suspicious of the couple, who refused to let him visit the funeral home. Carie later delivered an inexplicably hefty package of ashes of Elliot’s 92-pound mother. The package did not contain the metal tags used to track the deceased through cremation, nor did Carie provide a cremation certificate. And Elliot said Carie, who initially delivered the ashes with a “huge smile,” became defensive when he questioned the cremation process.
Elliot’s mother’s death certificate said Return to Nature had used Wilbert Funeral Services for the cremation, but a representative for Wilbert said they had never handled the remains. In fact, they had stopped working with Return to Nature seven months before Elliot’s mother died.
Jessie’s sister eventually took the ashes to a funeral home in Georgia, where the operator said they didn’t appear to be human, though no forensic testing was performed.
Despite their doubts, the family scattered some of the ashes in Hawaii as their mother requested. Law enforcement has since told Elliot to hold on to the remainder of the ashes as the investigation continues.
“I want my mother’s remains back,” he said, “so we can do this all over again to put her to rest.”