EL PASO COUNTY, Colo. — Inside a packed El Paso County courtroom Thursday, dozens of victims watched as one of the individuals accused of improperly storing the bodies of their loved ones had his bond lowered.
Jon and Carie Hallford, the owners of the Return to Nature Funeral Home in Penrose, are accused of mishandling the remains of nearly 200 bodies. An investigation into the funeral home began in early October after reports of a horrific odor coming from the building. The Hallfords were arrested in Oklahoma around a month later.
Jon Hallford was originally scheduled for a preliminary hearing on Thursday afternoon, but his defense counsel filed a motion to continue the preliminary hearing. In the courtroom, defense attorneys said they have more than 7,000 pages of documents to review and need more time before the preliminary hearing.
Hallford was present in the courtroom Thursday, wearing an orange jumpsuit and watching the judge intently. One of the victims in the courtroom whispered, "He could at least try to look sorry," as she watched Hallford. His preliminary hearing was pushed to February 8 at 1:30 p.m.
Arrest papers horrify families impacted by Return to Nature funeral home
Instead of a preliminary hearing, where prosecutors aim to show a judge they have enough evidence for a trial, Hallford had a bond hearing. He was initially given a $2 million cash-only bond, but his defense argued it should be reduced to a $100,000 cash property or surety bond.
Judge William Moller granted the reduced bond to Hallford after hearing arguments from both sides.
Defense attorneys argued the $2 million cash-only bond was unattainable and therefore violated Hallford's rights. The case will take a long time and since Hallford could not afford the high bond amount, defense counsel said he would be sitting in jail for months, or possibly years.
Hallford's attorneys also pointed out he is a veteran who was honorably discharged and has a 17-year-old child who wants to finish their high school education in the area.
On the other hand, prosecutors said the alleged criminal activity in this case likely spanned four years, and that Hallford's arrest warrant shows a lack of good character, describing him as "unreliable and untrustworthy."
Prosecutors said it should come as no surprise they would be seeking a prison sentence in this case, and that if Hallford were convicted of all the charges against him with consecutive sentences, he could serve 525 years in prison. Of all of the cases the 4th Judicial District has filed since 1980, there is only one case from 2009 with more felony charges than this one, according to prosecutors.
The prosecution also pointed out there was a felony case against Hallford in Oklahoma that was ultimately dismissed. However, Judge Moller would later say it is "undisputed" that Hallford does not have a criminal record, since he was not convicted in the Oklahoma case.
A handful of text messages, allegedly sent from Hallford, were read by prosecutors in the courtroom. One from October 6, 2020, read, "I go to prison, which is probably what's going to happen." Another from a few days later, which prosecutors said was sent to his wife, read, "If Penrose were to be exposed, we lose everything anyway."
Another text from May 15, 2020, said, "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." Prosecutors said that text message is an example of Hallford being a flight risk, on top of being arrested in Oklahoma. According to prosecutors, Hallford "fled" to a Native American reservation in Oklahoma under the impression he could not be arrested there.
Other texts presented by prosecutors from October 2023, allegedly written by Hallford, said, "We are safe and laying low" and that he "is only going out at night and expects a warrant soon."
Judge Moller said he recognizes the sensitivity of this matter, but he must avoid unnecessary pretrial confinement and the court can fashion conditions that will protect public safety and prevent Hallford from fleeing the area. The judge added that he cannot make a finding on the selected texts presented by the prosecution without context.
As the judge explained his reasoning for lowering the bond amount, many of the victims gasped, cried, shook their heads and wrung their hands. Moller added that the $100,000 cash surety bond is 10 times the amount the bond schedule would require.
Once Hallford can meet the new bond amount, he will be released from jail. He must wear an ankle monitor, physically meet with pretrial services three times a week, and have sobriety monitoring as some of the conditions outlined by the court.
State recommends Colorado legislators regulate funeral directors
The devastation of the victims in the courtroom, whose loved ones were allegedly impacted by Hallford's actions, was tangible. Heather DeWolf held a photograph of her son, Zach, the entire time.
“He was one of the funniest people I have ever known in my life, also one of the smartest people I have ever known in my life. And I say that as not just as a mother, but as somebody who knew him," DeWolf said. "He was kind-hearted. He did not deserve this. He did not deserve this.”
DeWolf said her son died in July 2020 at the age of 33 after an accidental overdose. She said the family used Return to Nature Funeral Home for her son's cremation.
“It was devastating to lose him in the first place. Devastating, beyond devastating," said DeWolf. “I feel as if I've lost him again.”
Struggling to speak after the bond hearing, DeWolf said she is probably the angriest she has ever been after hearing Hallford can be released from jail under the conditions set by the court.
“This is a disservice to all of the families that are involved in this," said DeWolf. "This is a disservice to my son.”
Knowing it will be a painstakingly long court process, DeWolf said she will do her best to show up for every proceeding, carrying Zach's picture with her.
“I'm going to stand here and I'm going to represent you. I'm going to be here for every single one of these [court hearings]," said DeWolf. “I'm going to share his picture so they can see his face, so they can know who he was. I may have failed him at the end, but I'm stepping up for him.”
DeWolf added that the state ought to strengthen regulations surrounding the funeral industry. Hallford's bond hearing comes just days after the Department of Regulatory Agencies (DORA) released a sunrise review that recommends legislators regulate funeral directors.
“Colorado needs to step up. We wouldn't be here if Colorado had done what they needed to do," said DeWolf. “Shame on Colorado for allowing this to happen. They are just as responsible.”
Family wants CO funeral directors licensed amid Return to Nature investigation
Arguments were also heard about unsealing the arrest affidavit in the case. Defense attorneys argued the arrest papers are "editorialized and inflammatory" and that freedom of the press should not outweigh Hallford's right to a fair trial. Meanwhile, prosecutors said there is no statutory or case law basis to continue to seal the affidavit, and that many high-profile cases in the district have been able to navigate the court system with unsealed affidavits.
Judge Moller will wait to decide whether or not to unseal the affidavit until he hears from attorneys representing Carie Hallford.
Denver7 asked 4th Judicial District Attorney Michael Allen if Carie Hallford's preliminary hearing will proceed as scheduled next week. Allen said as far as he knows, her preliminary hearing is still set for January 11.