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Disturbing new details revealed about Colorado funeral home accused of improperly storing 190 bodies

"It looked like something you'd like to forget but can't," an FBI agent testified.
Disturbing new details revealed about interior of Colo. funeral home accused of improperly storing 189 bodies
Posted at 10:31 PM, Jan 11, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-12 07:09:08-05

Editor's note: This story contains graphic content. Viewer discretion is advised.

EL PASO COUNTY, Colo. — Haunting images shown for the first time in an El Paso County courtroom Thursday gave a glimpse into the conditions of the Return to Nature funeral home in Penrose.

Jon and Carie Hallford are accused of improperly storing nearly 200 bodies inside the southern Colorado funeral home. Carie appeared in court for her preliminary hearing Thursday, where prosecutors must prove to a judge they have enough evidence to take the case to trial.

The hearing was not completed Thursday afternoon. Arguments regarding unsealing the arrest affidavit will be heard Friday, while final arguments for Carie's preliminary hearing are set for next week.

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Carie entered the courtroom wearing an orange jumpsuit and looking toward the judge, while victims filled the rows of the gallery.

Before the prosecution began their argument, one of the people observing the proceeding took a photograph of Carie. Judge William Moller ordered the woman to delete the picture and reminded everyone in the courtroom of the decorum required.

Prosecutor Rachael Powell first called FBI Agent Andrew Cohen to the stand, who was assigned as a case manager for the Return to Nature case. Cohen said the property itself is around 1.9 acres, and the funeral home is a standalone building that's roughly 2,500 square feet.

Cohen said the Hallfords purchased the property in November 2021 and appeared to have leased it for several years prior. Jon and Carie each owned 45% of the company, while a third person owned the remaining shares for Hallford Homes LLC, Cohen testified.

Disturbing new details revealed about Colo. funeral home accused of improperly storing 190 bodies

Prosecutors proceeded to show dozens of photographs taken during the execution of the search warrant on the funeral home in early October 2023. One of the pictures showed a sign on the front door stating the business was closed due to COVID-19.

Investigators said the search began on October 5 and ended on October 13. While on the stand, Cohen said investigators discovered 189 adults, infants and fetuses inside the funeral home.

Tissues were handed out to victims in the gallery as more photographs were shown to the courtroom. Bodies were stored in various ways within the building. Some were entirely exposed while others had partial coverings. Some were wrapped in blankets commonly found in a hospice-type home, while others were wrapped in plastic and duct tape. The photos included bodies in temporary body bags, black plastic totes, and cardboard boxes commonly used in the cremation process.

Investigators said it was around 70 degrees Fahrenheit inside the funeral home when they first entered. Cohen said the "makeshift refrigeration units" were not working properly and were being used to store bodies.

"It looked like something you'd like to forget but can't," Cohen testified.

Photographs showed the floor — normally a white cream color — stained dark brown from decomposition fluids. Cohen said investigators had to put cardboard down to walk through many rooms since the fluid was so thick and slippery.

In other rooms, there were countless insects littered across the ground, so much so that the carpet appeared patterned. More pictures showed boxes of baking soda and bags of quick concrete mix inside the funeral home. The inside windows were covered with either a drape or curtain, the photos show.

One photograph showed a bag containing a body that had come untied and remains were spilling out of the bag into a bucket.

Another picture showed a metallic appliance in the background. Cohen explained it was a homemade water cremation machine that appeared to have been used at some point.

Cohen said at this time, there are approximately 30 to 40 bodies that have not been identified. He said the earliest recorded date of death was September 15, 2019 — 1,481 days before the discovery. The most recent date of death was August 22, 2023, Cohen said.

The vast majority of deaths, around 70%, occurred in El Paso County.

According to Cohen, 23 bodies had a death date in 2019, 61 bodies had a death date in 2020, 17 bodies had a death date in 2022 and 40 bodies had a death date in 2023. No bodies have thus far been recorded with a death date in 2021.

During the defense's cross-examination, Cohen said there were employees working at Return to Nature Funeral Home in 2021 who seemed to have a very proactive role in the disposal of human remains.

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The funeral home had a working surveillance system, and one snapshot from the early morning hours of September 9 was shown to the courtroom. It appears to show Jon inside the funeral home, surrounded by decomposing bodies. Cohen said the video shows Jon removing a body from a cart and proceeding to bring in at least four more bodies.

One of the bodies investigators identified was supposed to be buried at Pikes Peak National Cemetery. The individual was a US Army Sergeant First Class (SFC) who was honorably discharged after serving for 20 years. Cohen said the remains inside their gravesite — which was exhumed — did not match the sex of the person who was supposed to be buried there. The remains were tightly wrapped in plastic and covered in duct tape.

Bank records were also obtained for the business account connected to the Hallfords. Some transactions appeared to be connected to their business, according to Cohen, while others were "extravagant" and not related.

A Home Depot account in Jon Hallford's name showed several years of purchases that included roughly a ton of quick-mix concrete, according to Cohen. The agent said there was no evidence of an ongoing project that would require so much concrete.

In one of Jon's previous court appearances, his defense counsel stated he is a veteran. Cohen said records he found showed Jon spent approximately 47 days in the military.

The second witness on the stand, Agent Christopher Adams with the Colorado Bureau of Investigations (CBI), said Carie completed a test with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) that was needed to register for electronic death certificates. The death certificates were not correct, according to Adams, and listed the disposition of remains as either burial or cremation.

The last witness to testify Thursday was Kevin Clark, a professional intelligence analyst who works with the 4th Judicial District Attorney's Office. He completed a preliminary analysis of Jon and Carie's cell phones, along with their son's phone.

One text conversation in May 2020 between Jon and Carie appears to show Carie asking Jon to contact potential clients. Some portions of the messages were missed, which are depicted by ellipses below:

Jon Hallford: “We just now have a grip on Penrose and we’re days away from getting this rolling. I do not f****** have time for this, if they want to have a closed casket quick graveside service with us fine…"

Carie Hallford: “I’ll give you their number.”

Jon Hallford: “I’m killing myself to try and save our a**. I don’t have time for extracurricular bullsh**.”

Carie sends the family's contact information to Jon, which was not disclosed to the courtroom.

Jon Hallford: “I literally just told you it was not my problem and I’m not doing anything with it… the fact that you even asked this morning shows you have no concern for me getting this f****** done… what I’m trying to do now is saving us from going to prison… how are we even having this god**** conversation?”

Jon Hallford: "I don't give a f*** about this family. I'll give a f*** about what's happening in Penrose... my one and only focus is keeping this family out of jail."

Carie Hallford: “So again, since you won’t do it, then you can be the ones to tell them.”

Another text message conversation from October 2020 seemingly shows Jon asking Carie to buy tarps, blankets, towels, and absorbents.

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Victims like Lisa Ostly listened in shock. Ostly used Return to Nature for her father, Bruce, who died in December 2022. Bruce loved animals and did crossword puzzles every day.

“He lived with me for the last three years," Ostly said about her father. “I loved my dad very much, and he knew that. And I was with him in his last hours, and I slept with my head on his hand overnight in the hospital before he passed, and I held his hand. And all my kids called him and told him what a great impact he had on their lives, just being curious and being gentle. He was just a very special man, and they don't make them like that anymore. So, always in my heart, Dad."

Ostly found it hard to describe what it was like to see the photographs from inside the funeral home.

“The worst picture for me was when they opened up the Pikes Peak Memorial veteran grave. They exhumed the grave, and that body was not in there. Instead, there were remains all duct-taped up, shoved in there. I just, I'm not a military family member, but I just can't even imagine what that family felt," Ostly said.

The preliminary hearing brought Ostly's grief rushing back, she said.

“I'm numb. I'm furious. I'm all the things," she said. “They had his body for 10 months, and it should have been dust. And they just had it oozing all over everything else. It's just disgusting.”

Ostly said she has to summon the strength to sit in the courtroom and abide by the decorum order, without having any emotional outbursts. All she can think about is her father during the proceedings.

"He didn't have ashes to ashes. He didn't have dust to dust. You know, I got this box of I don't know what — I had to give it to the FBI, and they haven't told me what's in it. But I expect it's concrete," Ostly said through tears. “I owe it to my dad to see everything that I can see to know and try to understand what happened to him.”

Arguments related to unsealing the arrest affidavit are set for Friday at 11 a.m. The final arguments for Carie's preliminary hearing are scheduled for next week.

Jon's preliminary hearing is set for Feb. 8.

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