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'Why didn't you tell me:' Colorado cemetery owner confronts coroner who buried 5 homeless people on his land

Posted at 8:37 AM, Feb 16, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-16 10:37:47-05

LAS ANIMAS COUNTY, Colo. — A rural cemetery owner had no idea the Las Animas County coroner was burying homeless people on his land. That coroner is now under investigation by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation for burying people in mass graves.

Scripps News Colorado Springs obtained documentation, the coroner has dug many graves at Starkville Cemetery.

Starkville is a private cemetery that sits only a few miles from downtown Trinidad, but it's tucked away up a hill and out of sight. It has been in Carl Mestas' family for decades and now he owns it. But Mestas says he was not made aware that Coroner Dominic Verquer had buried anyone on his land until he got a call from a woman wanting to exhume the body of her father - Frederick Huff.

Confused by the request to exhume a man he didn't believe was buried at Starkville, Mestas said he called her.

"‘Well this is the first I'm hearing this. What do you mean your father is buried there and you can't get in?’ She says, ‘Well, the coroner is telling me that I cannot access that property,'" Mestas recalled.

Huff was an unhoused veteran who lived around Trinidad for decades. As a person who relied on government benefits, the county paid for his burial after the coroner's office reported it could not find family members to claim his body and he was declared indigent. County records show Huff passed away in July 2019 after his body was discovered in a state of decomposition.

After speaking to Huff's daughter about her request to exhume him and return his body to Oklahoma, Mestas called Verquer.

"And I was like, 'I don't understand. What is the problem with her going into the cemetery? He says, 'I wasn't about to let her in there.' He says, 'I'm the coroner of this county. This is my county. I'm the coroner, and I'm not gonna allow her to go on somebody else's private property.' I'm like, 'Well, it's not an issue with me if the lady wants to visit her father's grave site,'" Mestas recalled.

On the day of Huff's exhumation in September 2023, Mestas said Verquer was standing by as crews unearthed two bodies which were buried together in one grave. One was Frederick Huff. The other was unidentified and left in the grave. It's illegal to bury people together in Colorado without family permission. The discovery of two bodies in one grave prompted the CBI to launch an investigation.

“I've seen mangled bodies. I've seen a lot of bad things. So I've got a pretty strong stomach. I do. But when I saw that; that somebody would do that to dead human beings, that turned my stomach. It did. I thought, what kind of human being would do this?” Mestas said.

Internal records from the coroner's office which Scripps News Colorado Springs obtained through an Open Records Request show five people are listed as buried at Starkville Cemetery. Learning that the coroner had buried others along with Frederick Huff on Mestas' land without his consent, Mestas said he confronted Verquer.

"'Dominic, Why didn't you tell me that there was one more than one body here?' And he says, 'It wasn't on purpose. I just didn't.' And I said, 'Excuse me?' He says, 'It wasn't on purpose. I just didn't. I didn't tell you.' And I thought, this is bizarre,” Mestas said.

Mestas wonders why Verquer didn't ask him if they could bury indigent people at Starkville before choosing to trespass on his land.

"I can't see myself saying no. I'm not gonna deny somebody the privilege of a burial. Right? But nobody ever did that. They went up there, I guess now, five times to do that without letting me know,” Mestas said.

While documents obtained from Verquer's office show he buried five people at Starkville, another internal document obtained by Scrips News Colorado Springs shows his employees were up at the cemetery nine times between April 2019 and July 2023. The coroner's Daily Cost Sheet through an Open Records Request shows the tasks his office completed each working day, the employees who worked the jobs, how many hours they worked and the equipment they used. Those hours are billed to Las Animas County.

In the Daily Cost Sheet on April 24, 2019, Verquer noted, "Dug Grave = Starkville." The next day, the notation: "covered grave = Starkville." Three months later, crews were back at Starkville Cemetery, as Verquer noted on July 19, 2019, "Dug grave = Starkville."

According to the hours logged with the entries, these were not short visits. On October 8, 2020, the cost sheet shows three employees each spent ten hours working at Starkville Cemetery. In July 2023, two employees of the coroner's office spent a combined 13 hours, "weeding and mowing," according to the Daily Cost Sheet. As the cemetery is private land it is not the coroner's responsibility to maintain.

The notes in the Daily Cost Sheet are handwritten, so details may have been misremembered or left out. But on each job, the coroner's office noted the equipment code associated with the county equipment used for each job. Checking the equipment codes for the jobs at Starkville against the Las Animas County Road and Bridge Inventory list, we learned that crews were using the county's backhoe, grader, dump truck and pickup trucks to complete the work there.

As the CBI continues its investigation in Las Animas County, Mestas wonders when investigators will exhume the body that was buried next to Frederick Huff, which remains unidentified.

Verquer responded to a request for comment, saying his attorney recommended against it given the allegations he is facing in the investigation. Meanwhile, a group of citizens in Trinidad announced to county commissioners that they plan to begin a signature campaign to recall the coroner from his elected position.

Cemetery owner confronts coroner who buried five homeless people on his land