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Case closed: District Attorney shares his reasoning not to file charges against Las Animas Co. coroner

Posted at 6:28 PM, May 08, 2024
and last updated 2024-05-08 21:01:12-04

LAS ANIMAS COUNTY, Colo. — The accusations against the Las Animas County coroner were disconcerting at best. Now, a CBI investigation has confirmed the coroner did bury homeless people in mass graves, but he didn’t break the law. That was the determination of one man, Third Judicial District Attorney (DA) Henry Solano.

See the timeline of the case against Las Animas County Coroner, Dominic Verquer

We spoke with Solano in an exclusive one-on-one interview about his findings based on evidence the CBI collected.

While the investigation found that some allegations against Coroner Dominic Verquer were not true, the district attorney said some are, but they’re not criminal. We also learned there is a potential conflict of interest in this investigation and we asked the DA about it.

Rewind back to September 2023 and the moment that started the investigation. During an exhumation of a homeless man by his family, crews discovered he was in a grave with another person.

"It’s just wrong. You just don’t do this. I’ve shared this with a lot of people, because I’m offended," said Trinidad funeral home owner Tom Murphy after learning of the discovery.

His reaction is one others shared when news coverage of the discovery of the bodies buried together prompted questions about Coroner Dominic Verquer’s actions. Citizen demand prompted the sheriff’s office to eventually ask the CBI to investigate Verquer.

"They independently did the investigation beginning in January. And I believe that it was probably in early March, that they indicated that they were close to being complete," DA Henry Solano said about the CBI investigators.

In March, Solano began reviewing what the CBI found. The investigation was comprised of 11 interviews, 108 documents, videos and photos. Solano concluded though Verquer buried two people together, he didn’t act criminally.

"There is no law that prohibits people being buried in the same grave," Solano said.

Solano confirms the CBI investigation found what News 5 obtained in a Colorado Open Records Request; the coroner buried five indigent people at Starkville Cemetery, just outside of Trinidad. It is unclear in the records whether he buried other individuals in the same grave.

"In this instance, there was no family to ask. And so it wasn't an act taken carelessly, it was just an act and a decision made," Solano said of Verquer's decision to bury the bodies together.

Solano says while Verquer could have applied for county funds to pay for the plots and burials for indigent people, the investigation found he didn’t use the state program.

"When [the CBI] did a records request of the county, going all the way back to 2014 through 2023, the coroner received no county funds," Solano said.

News 5 obtained the county records of indigent burials paid out in the last 10 years in an Open Records Request and the coroner nor his office is noted as a recipient. He didn’t need the funding as the investigation found Verquer got permission to bury the bodies at Starkville. The cemetery land is owned by Carl Mestas and his family. Mestas maintains no one told him about the burials until he confronted Verquer at the exhumation.

“I says, 'Dominic, so why didn't you tell me that there was 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.'"

DA Solano said Verquer’s actions did not amount to criminal trespassing because Mestas’ family gave Verquer access to the property.

"I asked him, I said, 'Dominic.' I says, 'Did you get permits to bury these bodies?' He says, 'I don't think there are any permits.' And I said, 'I have two people in the... funeral industry here saying that you have to have permits to bury bodies.' He says, 'I don't think there are any permits.'"

It is one of the accusations that Verquer did not keep accurate records. News 5 reported that though one of Verquer’s records we obtained shows his office buried five people at Starkville, as we reported in February, other records from his office show his crews spent more than five days there.

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

We asked DA Solano whether he had any difficulty deciphering whether the records accurately indicated that the county employees and the county equipment were being used properly during these burials.

"There may be a grave dug, and they covered the next day. But there were a number that were on my count - five - that could be confirmed within the time period that we were talking about," Solano said.

Solano explains the CBI found the dates in Verquer’s records and the deaths and burials of the five homeless people lined up and that county employees were not paid outside their regular salaries for this work.

"Does it surprise you that the CBI did not do any kind of body scan of that property or unearth any of those bodies to make sure that Verquers records were correct?" I asked the District Attorney.

"It does not surprise me, because, number one, the claim that a murder had happened was just merely an allegation without any basis," Solano said.

The murder he’s alluding to is one theory of what could have happened to Dave Shier. The long-time Trindad resident disappeared without a trace two years ago. Solano says the CBI investigated the allegation and found no evidence to support it.

"I do think it's very possible he was murdered. I think that my dad had a big, you know, and he's not perfect. But he had a big heart," said Morgan Shier in February 2024.

Shier wants to know the identity of the person who crews discovered buried alongside the homeless man exhumed last fall.

“There's this real possibility that that could be my dad in there. And it's just like, why have we confirmed that?" Shier asked.

She was hoping the CBI would investigate the identity of those buried at Starkville, but Solano said there is no further investigation needed.

"The only conclusion I arrive at is that as to any of the claims that were raised in any of the different forums, we did not find, CBI or I, any factual support for any criminal misconduct," Solano said.

Finally, News 5 learned of a potential conflict of interest in the review of this investigation. The coroner’s long-time girlfriend works in Solano’s office. We asked if Solano considered that a conflict of interest.

"No, I will just come back and say she was not involved in any communication, at least at the direction of this office. She was specifically asked, and when the CBI ultimately did the review ... And I am the only one. The only one in the office, who reviewed the report and made the decision. I wrote the final analysis,” Solano said.

Meanwhile, Murphy along with the Shier family are spearheading an effort to recall Verquer from the elected position he’s held as coroner for 14 years.

"If we can do this, we'll have 60 days to gather the signatures," Murphy told News 5 in January 2024.

He said the campaign to collect signatures continues despite the DA's decision not to file charges.

News 5 spoke with Dominic Verquer Wednesday to let him know we’re doing the story and see if he had a comment. He’s ignored our requests for an interview. He said he would call me back.

While the criminal investigation is complete, the Department of Regulatory Agencies, or DORA, is reviewing allegations into whether the coroner violated state regulations. Sources tell News 5 that investigation is nearly complete and on the desk of the director for consideration.