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Fremont Co. Sheriff recalls 'horrific' scene at funeral home where 115 'improperly stored' bodies discovered

Investigators are reaching out to families who worked with Return to Nature Funeral Home in Penrose.
Posted at 8:40 AM, Oct 05, 2023

PENROSE — The FBI and multiple Colorado agencies are investigating the alleged improper storage of more than 115 bodies discovered at Return to Nature Funeral Home in Penrose, Colorado following a complaint about a foul odor in the area.

Officials have kept quiet about the investigation until this morning when they released information on the magnitude of the investigation and warned it will be a long process to respectfully remove and identify all the remains discovered this week.

Fremont County Sheriff Allen Cooper says his office was notified this week about an odor coming from the funeral home on Werner Rd.

News5 Investigates has learned state records say the owner, Jon Hallford, told the Colorado Program Director of the Office of Funeral Home and Crematory Registration Zen Mayhugh he practiced taxidermy at the property.

The document also said Hallford "attempted to conceal the improper storage of human remains" at the funeral home.

Investigators are encouraging clients and families with the funeral home to make contact with law enforcement. Family members of decedents who utilized the Return to Nature Funeral Home can send an email to 23-1941@fremontso.com and are asked to leave their contact number. If you do not use email, then you can contact the Fremont Emergency Management call line at (719)-276-7421.

There will also be a victim's assistance personnel able to help at 1901 East Main in Canon City between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.

According to Return to Nature's website, the company stopped offering cremation services in July 2023 but was honoring existing pre-arrangements for direct cremation. That's a process of cremating remains without services for the family or a memorial event.

Rewatch the press conference from Friday on the Penrose funeral home investigation below.

Investigators reveal 115 bodies found stored at funeral home

What investigators are saying so far

During the press conference on Friday, October 6, Fremont County Sheriff Allen Cooper says his deputies were called to Return to Nature on Tuesday for a report of an "abhorrent smell emanating" from the property.

Investigators were able to get in contact with the business owner who admitted he had a "problem" at the location. On Wednesday, law enforcement entered the location and discovered more than 115 bodies inside the 2,500-square-foot building. According to state documents, the owner "failed to permit access to an investigator for inspection" during a search on Thursday.

According to Cooper, "the area of the funeral home where the bodies were improperly stored was horrific." The scene is considered hazardous, with medics on site to care for personnel having to enter the building. According to officials, a deputy coroner had to be treated after experiencing a rash while in the building.

So far, no arrests have been made and there's no announcement of possible charges. Investigators are working with the 11th Judicial District on the case.

Colorado Governor Jared Polis has verbally approved a disaster declaration for the incident, which frees up additional resources for the investigation and recovery effort.

Fremont County Coroner Randy Keller says that the warrant that allowed investigators to discover the scene at the funeral home was issued due to "a report of an odor coming from the Return to Nature Funeral Home." His office anticipates it could take months to complete the identification process and notify next of kin.

FBI Special Agent Mark Michalek says investigators do not yet know how long human remains may have been improperly stored at the facility. Resources are on the way from Quantico, Virginia to assist in the identification and recovery process.

Forensic investigators and local authorities will go through a process of conducting a survey of the facility to develop a plan for recovering remains while creating a plan to keep personnel safe as they process all of the evidence and human remains.

Community reaction

Return to Nature Funeral Home is owned by Jon Hallford and his wife, Carie. News5 has been unable to contact the couple who run the business that is based in Colorado Springs.

The facility is located off of Highway 115 right next to the US Post Office. People News5's Eleanor Sheahan spoke to had no idea the location was a funeral home. With overgrown grass and tall weeds, they believed the building was abandoned.

"I'm scared for my friend. We've worked together for a good time and he's my go-to guy. And for him not to respond this morning makes me worried for them," said Tammi Kincaid.

Kincaid runs He Loves Me Florist in Colorado Springs and works closely with the Hallfords' business. She says she's close friends and shared Jon Hallford has officiated her daughter's wedding and agreed to officiate her upcoming nuptials. Kincaid tells News5 that the Hallfords were visiting family last weekend in Oklahoma and she had not heard from them since Friday.

"He has worked really hard. They are amazing. They do great work and I believe in what they believe, in non-chemical embalming, they don't put stuff in our drinking water," Kincaid said on the funeral home's green burial practices.

The Fremont County Sheriff's Office is working with the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Colorado Department of Public Health, and the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies on the case.

News5 is currently working to learn more details. We will continue updating this article as we learn more.

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