COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — "I think people need to understand is these aren't just bodies decaying in a building," said Shelia Canfield-Jones. "These are people, they have faces, they have lives, they were human beings just like you and me."
That's why Shelia and her husband, Gary Canfield-Jones, want to show their daughter Marella's face. Marella was a mom, full of life, who spent part of her career working as a model.
"She was a very good model and she enjoyed doing it, I think that was the fun part," said Shelia Canfield-Jones. "Then she got to a point where she said, 'Mom, I just want to go to school'. So she finished her degree in biology and was working as a sleep study tech in Denver and had a really good job."
Marella was just 38 years old when she died. That was in 2019. Now, four years later, her parents say their daughter was one of the 189 other people found at the Return to Nature Funeral home in Penrose earlier this fall.
"When I finally got out of the FBI, what it was that they were calling about, it was like going through it all over again," said Gary Canfield-Jones.
It's a real-life horror story she says could have been prevented if Colorado had tougher laws including licensing requirements for funeral homes and their employees and routine inspections.
"One of the jokes in the mortuary business is people will complain about having to go to school and get licensed to be a funeral director, and they start complaining about all that's involved," said Shelia Canfield-Jones. "The joke is they look at them and say, 'Go to Colorado, you can be a funeral director tomorrow.'"
According to the National Funeral Directors Association, Colorado is the only state in the nation that does not have licensing for funeral directors or crematory operators. See each state's regulations here.
We learned in Colorado, funeral directors themselves are not regulated, only the business. According to a spokesperson with the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies (DORA), there are only two requirements on the application for funeral homes and crematories to become registered with the state. Those include paying a required fee of $300 and completing an appointed designee affidavit. That designee must sign they are at least 18 years of age, have at least two years experience working for a funeral establishment, be employed by the funeral establishment, and have authority to ensure personnel comply with the Mortuary Science Code. A DORA spokesperson says on average it can take between 7 to 30 days to approve an application.
As for inspections, a DORA spokesperson says the Director of the Division of Professions and Occupations only inspects funeral homes and crematories if a complaint is made or "upon the director's own initiative."
"None of us complained for four years because we thought we had our daughter's ashes," said Shelia Canfield-Jones.
Now she's on a mission to change that.
"Changing the laws helps you, it helps me, it helps everybody," said Shelia Canfield-Jones.
Eddy Prest wants the laws changed, too.
"We inspect every single gas pump in the state, when I get a water heater installed at my house, the state and the city comes in to verify that it was installed properly," said Prest. "That we don't care about taxpayers once they pass away is unfathomable to me. I do not want to see us be the most regulated state in the country, I don't want overregulation, I don't want to be the laughing stock of the country when it comes to this, where morticians tell their students if they don't like going to school, just go to Colorado because you don't need any accreditation here.
Prest thought he had his father's ashes, too, until he says he got a call from the FBI.
"We spread some of them on the Sunday before I was notified by the FBI the following day that that was not my father," Prest said.
His father, Thomas Prest, died this past July.
"He was just a very kind, gentle man that loved the outdoors and hiking and backpacking," Prest said.
Prest says he trusted the owners of the funeral home with his father's remains.
"I called and spoke with Carie Hallford on the phone when inquiring about finding services for my father, and communicated with her multiple times," said Prest. "I met with her in person to collect what she claimed were the ashes of my father, which cannot be the ashes of my father. She and her husband, Jon, came to my parents home to collect my father when he passed at home under hospice care."
That's why Prest and the Canfield-Jones family are determined to make sure this never happens to anyone else.
"The most important thing going forward is not a lot can be done for us, but we can do a lot for the next families that are going to be the next victims," Prest said.
"I'm definitely on a mission to change these laws because nobody should go through this," said Shelia Canfield-Jones. "This should not even have ever existed and it wouldn't have if we had those laws in effect. But it's up to the legislators to make that decision and the only way they're going to make that decision is if we, you, me, the people, the families involved, make an effort to email or call them or send them a letter."
Senator Dylan Roberts tells me he and Representative Matt Soper plan to introduce legislation in January to better regulate the mortuary industry. We will be sure to track that legislation and let you know what happens.
In the meantime, the Colorado Office of Policy, Research, and Regulatory Reform which makes recommendations to lawmakers is currently conducting a sunrise review for funeral service professionals. A sunrise review is an assessment of potential regulations. It is due to lawmakers by the end of the month. It is expected to include a recommendation to license all funeral home professionals.
The funeral homeowners, Jon and Carie Hallford, are both currently in the El Paso County jail on a $2 million cash-only bond each. They are facing 250 felony charges.
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