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'I'm just so angry': Arrest papers horrify families impacted by Return to Nature funeral home

Colorado lawmakers plan to introduce bill next session that would regulate funeral directors
Return to Nature Funeral Home
Posted at 10:59 PM, Nov 08, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-09 00:59:29-05

PENROSE, Colo. — The owners of a southern Colorado funeral home accused of improperly storing 190 bodies were arrested in Oklahoma Wednesday.

Court documents obtained by Denver7 revealed new details about the "abhorrent" conditions investigators found inside of Return to Nature Funeral Home in Penrose, and what led to the arrests of Jon and Carie Hallford.

The arrest affidavits for the Hallfords claim that on October 3, "law enforcement was alerted to a horrific odor of decomposing bodies" coming from the funeral home. The next day, Jon Hallford was contacted by an investigator from the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies (DORA) who wanted to go inside the building. According to his affidavit, Jon Hallford told the investigator he was using the funeral home in Penrose to "learn how to do taxidermy and that he knew he had a problem there."

Jon Hallford set an appointment to meet with DORA in the afternoon on October 4, but never came to the funeral home. That was the last time Jon Hallford communicated with law enforcement, the affidavit states.

Investigators executed a search warrant at the property, and discovered 190 bodies. According to arrest papers, "bodies were stacked on top of each other and some were not in body bags." Some of the bodies had been inside of the funeral home since 2019, court documents state.

Federal agents believe Jon Hallford knew what would be found inside of the funeral home, and "it is reasonable to believe Jon and Carie Halford fled Colorado to avoid prosecution," the affidavit states.

By the middle of October, the Hallfords' phones had traveled out of state and were located in Oklahoma. The two were arrested in Oklahoma after federal agents saw a car registered to Jon Hallford parked outside of his parents' home.

The Hallfords are facing several charges, including abuse of a corpse, theft, money laundering, and forgery.

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The details contained in the court documents were excruciating for impacted families to read.

Tanya Wilson's mother, Yong Anderson, was sassy, loved to cook, and took care of everyone around her. Wilson said her mother was one of the hardest-working women she's ever met.

“She had her stroke in 2005, which kind of left the left side of her body not as functional as the rest of her," Wilson said about her mother. "She did OK, up until probably around 2020. She was in an assisted living facility in Woodland Park.”

Wilson said her mother's health continued to decline. When the pandemic hit, Wilson's brother made the decision to take their mother out of the assisted living facility and into his Teller County home. Wilson's brother cared for their mother until she passed in June 2023. The family then hired the Return to Nature Funeral Home in Colorado Springs.

"She ended up in the Penrose location," Wilson explained. “We went to Hawaii to spread her ashes in the ocean, which she wanted. Turns out, that they weren't her ashes at all.”

When the news broke about the remains found in the Penrose location of Return to Nature, Wilson said the siblings knew at that moment something terrible happened to their mother.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) notified Wilson that her mother was identified as one of the bodies found in Penrose. A bracelet Wilson's mother was wearing was returned to the family.

“The funeral home director warned us that it had not been cleaned or disinfected. So if we were to open the bag, you know, just to kind of, be forewarned, basically," Wilson said. “We hear decomposed bodies over and over and over again, but it's kind of an abstract term. But knowing that the objects that she had on her body that were returned to us actually had pieces of my mom's flesh stuck to it was really just, it kind of really sunk in at that point... I just don't think people realize just how horrific this really is.”

Wilson said it was only a matter of time before the Hallfords were arrested.

“I don't feel any kind of relief, or any kind of cause for celebration or anything like that, because to me, it's just the very first step of what's going to be a lot of very long process. There's just so much more ahead, so much more waiting," Wilson said. “I don't really think — given everything that they've done — justice is ever going to be served. There's not enough jail time or prison time that will make up for what they did.”

Wilson said her family was grieving, but at peace, when her mother passed. With the allegations about Return to Nature, Wilson said the grief has returned and multiplied.

“I'm just so angry that this has been allowed to happen, that the system in Colorado is so flawed that this was able to happen," said Wilson. "It's very obvious that Colorado is in desperate need of some regulation regarding the funeral industry.”

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State Representative Matt Soper, R - Mesa and Delta Counties, carried the 2020 bill that made abuse of a corpse a felony. The Hallfords are the second instance where that charge has been used since it became law. The first case was regarding Shannon Kent, who was the Lake County coroner. Kent was acquitted.

"This will be the first case to really test the state of that criminal statute," Soper said about the Hallfords' charges.

Soper said there will be two pieces of legislation in the next legislative session aimed at improving the funeral industry in the state.

“One will be a sunset bill for the funeral home business entity," said Soper. "Every so many years, the legislature reviews whether or not the business entities should continue to be licensed by the state. And I will certainly be a part of that legislation. And absolutely, the state will continue licensure. We will also continue to have the ability for state regulators to go in and inspect funeral homes when complaints have been made.”

Soper plans to be the prime sponsor on another bill that would be considered a sunrise bill. In 1983, the Colorado legislature let the licensing of funeral home operators sunset, meaning they have not been regulated by the state since. Colorado is the only state in the country that does not license funeral home directors.

"We want to regulate the operators again. It's really important to us because it's been alleged that a number of these individuals who've been involved with the alleged crimes here, like out of Fremont County, or out of Montrose County, actually had come from other states, and they'd been kicked out of the industry there," said Soper. "They looked around and said, 'Where can we go that no one's going to check my previous credentials?' It doesn't do any good to regulate the business entity if you don't actually look at the people, because the business is only as good as the people who work there.”

Soper said he contacted the Fourth Judicial District Attorney Michael Allen, who will be prosecuting the Hallfords, and asked if there are any parts of Colorado law that should be strengthened surrounding the funeral home industry.

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Federal action must be taken, Soper said, to truly combat the issues within the funeral industry.

The Colorado Funeral Directors Association (CFDA) is assisting legislators on the Colorado bills expected next session. Javan Jones is part of CFDA, owns three funeral homes in Colorado and is the Yuma County coroner. Jones said essentially, there are no requirements needed to become a funeral director in Colorado currently. He would like to see licensure brought back to the profession.

Jones said before the investigation in Penrose, the CFDA had already started the sunrise process, along with lobbyists and state representatives. If funeral directors are required to be licensed in Colorado, Jones said there would be some growing pains.

"You're going to have to grandfather in the problem, meaning that everybody's going to be grandfathered in is what we're looking towards. [I'm] not saying that's going to happen. As an industry, we can't just halt doing what we're going to do," Jones said. "But what that does allow for us is that allows us to know who's working in the funeral homes because right now, we don't know. You don't have to be a part of our association. It's not mandatory. It's only if you want to better yourself. So the funeral homes do have to register with the state. To be a funeral director, you do not.”

Jones said there is no rhyme or reason to the crimes alleged in Penrose.

"It's just maddening," Jones said about the accusations. “I'm hoping that the one good thing that comes out of this is that change will happen to better our industry."

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