DENVER — A judge ruled on Thursday that there is enough evidence in the case against a southern Colorado funeral home owner to head to trial.
Jon and Carie Hallford both face more than 200 charges related to allegations of improperly storing 190 bodies inside the Return to Nature Funeral Home in Penrose, Colorado.
The Hallfords purchased Return to Nature in 2019. Before that, the Hallfords had a lease agreement for the property, according to testimony from Jon's preliminary hearing on Thursday.
Arrest affidavits for the Hallfords, which were unsealed on Thursday, show the Fremont County Sheriff's Office received a report on Oct. 2, 2023, of a "horrible smell" coming from the building at 31 Werner Road. Days later, on Oct. 5, investigators executed a search warrant and found 189 bodies decomposing inside the funeral home.
During Carie's preliminary hearing on Jan. 17, FBI Special Agent Andrew Cohen testified that "it looked like something you'd like to forget but can't."
The court documents state in 2020, the Fremont County coroner told the Department of Regulatory Agencies (DORA) that they were suspicious about the "poor treatment of human bodies and improper refrigeration" at the funeral home. The coroner said they never received a reply from DORA.
Some of the Hallfords' business was conducted appropriately, the arrest affidavit states, and there were some arrangements made for proper cremations. Investigators claim that supports the fact that the Hallfords "knew how a funeral home business was supposed to run."
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Jon entered the El Paso County Courthouse on Thursday flanked by his defense counsel. Clean-shaven and wearing a suit, Jon was instantly confronted with cameras and questions, not only from the press but from one mother who said she used Return to Nature for her son.
As Jon left the courthouse, he was followed by two mothers, one of whom was Heather DeWolf. She repeatedly yelled after him, "Where is my son?"
Fourth Judicial District Attorney Michael Allen said prosecutors only had to present evidence to prove the most serious charges against Jon on Thursday because he is out on bond. The money laundering charges are the highest felony Jon faces.
Agent Cohen was also called to testify during Jon's preliminary hearing. While on the stand, Cohen said by 2020, Jon and Carie each owned 50% of the funeral home.
The earliest date of death found within the funeral home was Sep. 15, 2019, according to testimony. The most recent date of death was Aug. 22, 2023.
Cohen reviewed some of the same evidence heard in Carie's preliminary hearing, including the state of the bodies and funeral home when investigators entered. He also spoke about surveillance footage that showed Jon at the funeral home on Sep. 9, 2023, when he tried to unscrew a lightbulb to cover-up his activities and kept "looking around to make sure no one was watching." The footage is from the early morning hours — between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. — and allegedly shows Jon moving what appears to be a plastic-wrapped body on a cart.
Investigators obtained bank records from the Hallfords. Cohen said the average wholesale cost of cremation in Colorado is somewhere between $250 and $300. However, contracts show the Hallfords were allegedly charging customers upwards of $800 depending on the selections made. In almost all scenarios, money was paid upfront, according to Cohen.
In the Hallfords' business account, Cohen said investigators located both business and personal expenses. One example of a personal expense was a $1,500 dinner in Las Vegas in Feb. 2022.
The arrest affidavit states that in November and December 2021, approximately $151,000 and $62,000 were taken from the account respectively. Court documents state the money was used for $19,000 in Amazon purchases, $6,800 for a trip to California, $7,100 in a trip to Florida, $9,000 in a trip to Las Vegas, $31,000 in cryptocurrency, $7,700 in travel expenses on Expedia.com, $1,600 in purchases at Gucci, $3,400 in jewelry and $8,500 in laser body sculpting.
Jon faces four counts of money laundering, specifically related to the purchase and sale of two vehicles. In November 2021, the Hallfords allegedly purchased a GMC Yukon for $92,955 and then sold it for roughly $79,000 on June 13, 2022. Two days later, on June 15, investigators claim the Hallfords bought an Infiniti for $28,336. That car was sold in May 2023, Cohen testified.
Cohen said, based on his research, it should cost $57,000 to cremate 190 bodies. When compared to the value of the vehicle purchases, which were both paid in cash, each body could have been cremated twice.
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Jon and Carie are scheduled for to be arraigned on March 21.
In a press conference following the preliminary hearing, DA Allen said 22 bodies found inside the funeral home remain unidentified.
Danica Romero was in the courtroom on behalf of her big sister, Amanda. Romero said her sister died unexpectedly in December 2019, and the family used Return to Nature Funeral Home. She described Amanda as hilarious, and a person who was always willing to help in someone's worst moments. Amanda was a daughter, sister, and mother to two young boys.
“It’s a huge strain, losing somebody unexpectedly. And then to somewhat come to grips with that, and four years later learn that we don’t even have her ashes… I can’t even explain the toll it’s taken on my family," said Romero, who believes the family was given quick mix concrete instead of ashes. “I need to see this through. This is my way of processing and dealing with the fact that my family, along with many others, will probably never have answers.”
Romero said her sister has not been identified by investigators but is convinced the family does not have her ashes.
“To see my sister go through something like this, it really brings out the protective side of me," said Romero.
Romero said she was disgusted by the testimony related to the money laundering charges facing Jon.
“To prey on people in the weakest most vulnerable time of their life is absolutely despicable," said Romero. "I don’t know what type of person even does that. Someone who doesn’t have a soul... My sister didn’t deserve this. None of the families involved deserve this.”
Allen encouraged anyone who conducted business with Return to Nature Funeral Home from January 2019 to October 2023 and is concerned that their family member or friend is unidentified to email PenroseFuneralHome@fbi.gov. The emails will receive a response with a link to a questionnaire.
Calls can also be placed to 719-472-3856. Calls to that number will receive a return call with more information, according to Allen.