'Therapeutic justice': Return to Nature Funeral Home victims' families testify Thursday in honor of loved ones

191 bodies were found decomposing inside the Penrose funeral home in 2023
Return to Nature
Posted at 4:23 PM, Jun 20, 2024

FREMONT COUNTY, Colo. — Family members who entrusted the owners of a southern Colorado funeral home to care for their loved ones' remains spoke at length Thursday about the impacts the gruesome discovery of decomposing bodies by authorities last year has had on their lives.

"Whatever assets these folks have are gone," said one of the family members who was first to speak during a court hearing Thursday in which several family members of the victims provided impact statements. "I don’t need the money. Others might. It’s not about a dollar value. It’s about… what’s right, and me having some level of control on something that makes a difference."

Jon and Carie Hallford, the owners of the Return to Nature Funeral Home in Penrose, are accused of mishandling the remains of 191 bodies since at least early October of last year, after reports of a horrific odor coming from the building along Highway 115 in Fremont County were first made public. The Hallfords were arrested in connection with the horrifying discovery in Oklahoma around a month later.

Andrew Swan, who is now pursuing a class-action lawsuit on the behalf of family members, said in court the plaintiffs likely won't get the full amount of damages awarded to them. His firm, Leventhal Lewis Kuhn Taylor Swan PC, is working with the families and is not charging legal fees as the lawsuit moves through the court system.

For those bringing the civil case against the Return to Nature Funeral Home owners, it's about "therapeutic justice," as psychologist Dr. Sheri Gibson called it during the hearing Thursday.

"The nature of what’s been done to the bodies of the loved ones, I don’t think it can be entirely healed that someone wouldn’t feel grief over and over again," said Gibson. "When they lose other people from this point forward, there’s no way they won’t be remembering this moment."

For family members, it's also about standing up for their loved ones.

"I have very little control over what the courts will do in criminal matters. But I had an option here to stand up for myself and honor (my dad)," said another witness.

Other family members who spoke in court talked about the economic impacts they've taken on even after believing they had finished their business with the Hallfords.

"We’re having to relive this over and over and over. We’re having to acquire or hire counseling that’s coming from our own pocket. You’re talking about a lifetime of counseling and that expense moving forward," said a third family member who spoke in court. "It’s no just right now. We’re living with this six months later, one year later, two, ten until we die."

Another family member recounted Thursday feeling uneasy about her interaction with the Hallfords when she paid them for her daughter's interment.

"There was no certificate from the crematorium or tag, which I didn’t know. You’re grieving. You try to just trust," the family member said. "You think, 'It’s maybe just me.' It was a nightmare experience."

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Neither of the funeral home owners was in the courtroom Thursday to hear how the defendants' alleged crimes impacted the family members of the Hallford's suspected victims.

"The people I had hired to take care of my remains had dumped him like a bag of garbage," said a family member ashe testified Thursday, saying he's had to seek out group therapy.

Another witness who spoke in court said the ordeal has been "a roller coaster."

"The Hallfords put us on this ride that none of us ever wanted to enter into," said another family member who spoke about the impact the case has had on her mental health.

Jon and Carie Hallford both face more than 250 felony counts, including abuse of a corpse, money laundering, forgery and theft.

"Who knew they would be listed as a viable business, now knowing they owed so much money to crematoriums and places that make caskets?" said another family member.

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The average wholesale cost of cremation in Colorado is somewhere between $250 and $300, according to testimony from FBI Special Agent Andrew Cohen in another case against the Hallfords. However, contracts show the Hallfords were allegedly charging customers upwards of $800 depending on the selections made.

Victims testified to as much during court Thursday. A family member said he was charged $1,300 for his father's cremation. Another was charged $1,400.

Some of the Hallfords' business was conducted appropriately, their arrest affidavit states, and there were some arrangements made for proper cremations. Investigators have said those arrangements demonstrate the Hallfords "knew how a funeral home business was supposed to run," despite having allegedly done the opposite.

In arguing that Jon Hallford should be held in custody before the federal case is held, the U.S. Attorney's Office pointed to text messages that Jon sent to Carie in 2020 suggesting he knew the business was breaking the law by storing bodies stacked on top of one another at the building in Penrose.

"I don't give a f—k about this family, I'll give a f—k about what's happening in Penrose, are (sic) not going to prison and getting the f—k out of this community. My one and only focus is keeping us out of jail, what is yours?" Jon wrote in a message dated May 5, 2020.

He wrote about potential methods for disposing of the bodies that were improperly stored in Penrose in another text message from October 6, 2020. It reads:

"By December 6th we need to begin cleaning and restoring the building in Penrose to be out by Dec. 31st."

While many families had their family members identified among the nearly 200 decomposing bodies, a fourth witness said in court Thursday she still doesn't know if her aunt was one of them. When she learned about the discovery, she went searching for her aunt's dental records and sent them to the FBI. She still hasn't heard back.

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"There’s disgusting people out there. They shouldn’t be allowed to have a funeral home. That’s what I’m hoping from this suit," said another family member.

The Hallfords bought Return to Nature in 2019. Before that, the Hallfords had a lease agreement for the property, according to testimony from Jon's preliminary hearing in February.

The court documents state that in 2020, the Fremont County coroner shared suspicions with the Department of Regulatory Agencies (DORA) that there was "poor treatment of human bodies" and that "improper refrigeration" happened at the funeral home. The coroner said DORA never replied.

While the plaintiffs allege a failure in oversight from governmental agencies like DORA in this case, the second witness who testified in court said she hopes the law changes.

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Governor Jared Polis did sign a package of bills into law in late May that lawmakers think will strengthen regulations of Colorado's funeral home industry, including requirements for funeral home directors, embalmers and other industry professionals to be licensed.

Another law now requires funeral homes and crematories to be inspected on a routine basis, including outside business hours.

While the trauma and grief from the experience likely may never heal entirely, Dr. Gibson said the court can provide therapeutic justice by making the victims feel heard, understood and seen.

She pointed to the testimony 125 women were able to give in the sexual abuse case against Larry Nassar over the course of eight days as an example.

While Swan said the prosecution would be seeking a judgment from the court in the nine-figure range that likely won't be collected, Dr. Gibson said there is a silver lining for the families of the victims in the Return to Nature Funeral Home case: It would acknowledge a wrongful act has occurred to prevent something like this from happening to other families in the future.

"The publicity around a civil judgment can raise awareness around laws and public attitudes that can prevent this from happening again. When we have a civil judgment, it becomes public record and sets a precedent," Dr. Gibson said.

And it could provide some people closure, according to Dr. Gibson.

While the Return to Nature Funeral Home was demolished in mid-April, Dr. Gibson offered a suggestion for how the justice system could create some healing for the victims' families.

As part of the Return to Nature funeral package, the Hallfords pledged to plant a tree in honor of the person who died. And Dr. Gibson said that promise was never fulfilled. She recommended the land where the funeral home once stood be repurposed to plant a tree for every person that was found inside the building.

"Most of us live here because we have a deep connection to nature. I think that would be a source of healing," Dr. Gibson said.

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The court will now consider a judgment over the next 60 days.

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