At least 115 decaying bodies were found at a storage facility for a “green” funeral operator after neighbors reported a stench emanating from the site in rural southern Colorado, police said Friday.
The owner tried to conceal the improper storage of corpses and said he was doing taxidermy at the facility, according to a suspension letter sent to him by state regulators that was made public Friday. No one has been arrested or charged.
The Return to Nature Funeral Home facility in the small town of Penrose had been unregistered with the state for 10 months when owner Jon Hallford spoke by phone with a state regulator Wednesday, the day after the smells were reported and police launched an investigation.
Hallford acknowledged that he had a “problem” at the property, though the Colorado Office of Funeral Home and Crematory Registration document obtained by The Associated Press didn’t explain what Hallford meant with his taxidermy claim or how he tried to conceal improper storage of human remains.
Officials declined to describe the scene inside the facility. A multi-agency effort to recover and identify the remains was underway in the town of about 3,000 people in the mountains west of Colorado Springs.
The Return to Nature Funeral Home provided “green” burials of non-embalmed bodies in biodegradable caskets, shrouds or “nothing at all,” according to its website.
The company charged $1,895 for a “natural burial,” not including the cost of a casket and cemetery space, according to the website.
The company also provided cremation services. Messages left for the Colorado Springs-based company were not returned.
Neighbors smelled something foul
On Friday, a sour, rotten stench wafted from the back of the building, where windows were broken. Coroner’s officials from Fremont County and nearby El Paso County parked their trucks outside and walked around the building.
Local residents said they smelled foul odors around the building for months but thought little of it, assuming a dead animal or septic system was to blame.
Funeral home officials were cooperating as investigators sought to determine any criminal wrongdoing, Fremont County Sheriff Allen Cooper said at a news conference.
“Without providing too much detail to avoid further victimizing these families there, the funeral home where the bodies were improperly stored was horrific,” Cooper said.
Some identifications would require taking fingerprints, finding medical or dental records and DNA, Fremont County Coroner Randy Keller said.
“This could take several months. As we identify each decedent, families will be notified as soon as absolutely possible,” Keller said.
Family members who have used the funeral home were asked to contact investigators.
‘Assumed it was a dead animal’
The bodies were inside a 2,500-square foot (230-square meter) building with the appearance and dimensions of a standard one-story house.
Authorities declined to say if the building was equipped to properly store bodies. They also wouldn’t disclose in what state the bodies were found or how they were stored. Under Colorado law, green burials are legal but state code requires that any body not buried within 24 hours must be properly refrigerated.
Joyce Pavetti, 73, could see the funeral home from the stoop of her house and said she caught whiffs of a putrid smell in the last few weeks.
“We just assumed it was a dead animal,” she said. On Wednesday night, Pavetti said she saw lights from law enforcement swarming the building.
The building had been occupied by different businesses over the years, said Pavetti, who once took yoga classes there. She said she hadn’t seen anyone in the area recently and noticed the hearse behind the building in recent months.