EL PASO COUNTY, Colo. — Some of the remains in the Return to Nature Funeral Home investigation in Penrose had been dead for years.
El Paso County Coroner Dr. Leon Kelly said his office worked alongside the FBI identification team, Fremont County and the Air National Guard to conduct all 189 autopsies within a week and made several discoveries.
"I can tell you that these bodies, some of which have been here for several years," Kelly said. "Not all of them were recent, which speaks to the condition and the level of difficulty in identifying many to most of them."
The coroner said the majority of the bodies were from El Paso County and many of the bodies had received an autopsy in his office prior to the discovery at Return to Nature.
Return to Nature Funeral Home operated locations in both Colorado Springs and Penrose, the registration for the Penrose location had expired in November 2022.
"It kind of was a little bit of extra tragedy to the situation, I think, but at the same time, you know, we have served these people once and we will serve them again," Kelly said.
For a week, the staff at the El Paso County Coroner's Office worked 12-hour days on three-hour rotations with one medical examiner working at a time. By the end of that week, Kelly said they had identified about 150 of the 189 bodies.
"You may have families that have grieved and moved on, and they may be across the country. They may be across the world, and they may have no idea that any of this has happened," Kelly said.
Families who used Return to Nature in the past should contact the FBI and fill out the available forms , so investigators can try and match the rest of the remains with families.
"That process may take many many months because unlike fingerprints or identification of medical hardware or tattoos or some of the things that we were able to do initially here to identify folks, those have been exhausted," Kelly said.
Families are in the process of being notified by the Fremont County Coroner. In the meantime, the bodies will remain in El Paso County until families select their next funeral home.
Meanwhile, at the El Paso County Coroner's Office Kelly said he's working to take care of his staff because, on top of the load of conducting autopsies, there were still other deaths in El Paso County that needed autopsies in the coroner's office.
Kelly said the expertise of his staff was highlighted during this process, calling it one of the most "remarkable efforts" he's seen in his 16-year career.
"This is why they go into this job like this, this is why we do this," Kelly said, "the period after when it's over, that's when it gets tough because that's the time you have time to think about it and you're exhausted."
He said he's working to schedule as much time off as he can for his staff.
"I've been in a lot of mass fatality exercises, and I can tell you we've never tabletopped this, but it's one of those situations where you have a plan, you work the plan, you adapt it to how you need to." Kelly said.