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Owners of Colorado funeral home where 190 decaying bodies were found charged with COVID fraud

A hearse and debris can be seen at the rear of the Return to Nature Funeral Home.
A hearse and debris can be seen at the rear of the Return to Nature Funeral Home in Penrose, Colo., in October.
(Jerilee Bennett / The Gazette via Associated Press)
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The couple who owned a Colorado funeral home — where 190 decaying bodies were discovered last year — have been indicted on federal charges for fraudulently obtaining nearly $900,000 in pandemic relief funds from the U.S. government, according to court documents unsealed Monday.

The new federal charges against Jon and Carie Hallford add to charges in Colorado state court for allegedly abusing corpses.

 Mugshots of Jon Hallford and Carie Hallford in orange shirts.
Jon Hallford, left, and Carie Hallford, the owners of Return to Nature Funeral Home.
(Muskogee County Sheriff’s Office via AP, File)
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The Hallfords’ attorneys didn’t immediately return phone messages and emails from the Associated Press. The couple have not yet entered pleas to the state’s abuse of corpse charges.

Even before the new indictment was unsealed, public records revealed that the Hallfords had been plagued by debt, facing evictions and lawsuits for unpaid cremations even as they spent lavishly and received more than $123,300 in Small Business Administration loans for COVID-19 relief, according to U.S. government data. They also got a $15,000 grant in pandemic relief, according to federal data.

They bought a GMC Yukon and an Infiniti that together were worth more than $120,000 — enough to cover cremation costs twice over for all of the bodies found in their business’ facility last October, according to previous court testimony from FBI Agent Andrew Cohen.

A Colorado funeral home owner and his wife are arrested in Oklahoma on suspicion of abuse of a corpse, theft, money laundering and forgery.

Nov. 8, 2023

They also paid for trips to California, Florida and Las Vegas, as well as $31,000 in cryptocurrency, laser body sculpting and shopping at luxury retailers like Gucci and Tiffany & Co., according to court documents.

But they left in their wake a trail of unpaid bills, disgruntled landlords and unsettled business disputes.

Once, the couple claimed to a former landlord that they would settle their rent when they were paid for work they had done for the Federal Emergency Management Agency during the pandemic. The business’ website featured logos for FEMA and the Department of Defense.

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FEMA has said it did not have any contracts with the funeral home. A Defense Department database search also showed no contracts with the funeral home.

In 2022, the company failed to pay more than $5,000 in 2022 property taxes at one of their locations, public records show. Then last year, the business was slapped with a $21,000 judgment for not paying for “a couple hundred cremations,” according to public records and Lisa Epps, attorney for the crematory Wilbert Funeral Services.

Police say they have found at least 115 bodies at Colorado ‘green’ funeral home under investigation for improper handling of remains.

Oct. 6, 2023

The new federal charges are the latest example of allegations against the owners over alleged lies, money laundering, forgery and manipulation over the last four years, devastating hundreds of grieving families.

The discovery of the 190 bodies last year, some that had languished since 2019, left families to learn their loved ones weren’t in the ashes they were given by the funeral home, the Return to Nature Funeral Home in the small town of Penrose, about 100 miles south of Denver. Instead, they were decaying in a bug-infested building.

An investigation by the Associated Press found that the two owners likely sent fake ashes and fabricated cremation records. They appear to have written on death certificates given to families, along with ashes, that the cremations were performed by Wilbert Funeral Services, which denies performing them for the funeral home at that time.

When the decomposing bodies were identified in the funeral home’s facility, families learned that the ashes they held could not have been the remains of their loves ones.

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As far back as 2020, there were concerns raised about the business’s alleged improper storage of bodies. But there was no follow-up by regulators, letting the collection of bodies grow to nearly 200 over the following three years.

Colorado has some of the most lax regulations for funeral homes in the country. Those who operate them don’t have to graduate from high school, let alone get a degree in mortuary science or pass an exam. The case has pushed lawmakers to introduce bills bringing the rules in line with most other states, even surpassing some.

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