DENVER (AP) — The remains of at least 189 people have been removed from a Colorado funeral home, up from an initial estimate of about 115 when the decaying and improperly stored bodies were discovered two weeks ago, officials said Tuesday.
The remains were found by authorities responding to a report of an “abhorrent smell” inside a decrepit building at the Return to Nature Funeral Home in the small town of Penrose, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Denver. All the remains were removed from the site as of Oct. 13, but officials said the numbers could change again as the identification process continues.
The updated count comes as families who did business with the funeral home grow increasingly concerned about what happened to their deceased loved ones. Local officials said they will begin notifying family members in the coming days as the remains are identified.
There is no timeline to complete the work, which began last week with help from an FBI team that gets deployed to mass casualty events like airline crashes. Fremont County Coroner Randy Keller said he wanted to provide accurate information to families “to prevent further victimization as they continue to grieve.”
Officials have not disclosed further details of what was found inside the funeral home, but Fremont Sheriff Allen Cooper described the scene as horrific.
Authorities entered the funeral home’s neglected building with a search warrant Oct. 4 and found the decomposing bodies. Neighbors said they had been noticing the smell for days.
The owners of the Return to Nature Funeral Home had missed tax payments in recent months, were evicted from one of their properties and were sued for unpaid bills by a crematory that quit doing business with them almost a year ago, according to public records and interviews with people who worked with them.
A day after the odor was reported, the director of the state office of Funeral Home and Crematory registration spoke on the phone with owner Jon Hallford. He tried to conceal the improper storage of corpses in Penrose, acknowledged having a “problem” at the site and claimed he practiced taxidermy there, according to an order from state officials dated Oct. 5.
Attempts to reach Hallford, his wife Carie and Return to Nature have been unsuccessful. Numerous text messages to the funeral home seeking comment have gone unanswered. No one answered the business phone or returned a voice message left Tuesday.
In the days after the discovery, law enforcement officials said the owners were cooperating as investigators sought to determine any criminal wrongdoing.
The company, which offered cremations and “green” burials without embalming fluids, kept doing business as its financial and legal problems mounted. Green burials are legal in Colorado, but any body not buried within 24 hours must be properly refrigerated.
As of last week, more than 120 families worried their relatives could be among the remains had contacted law enforcement about the case. It could take weeks to identify the remains found and could require taking fingerprints, finding medical or dental records, and DNA testing.
Authorities found the bodies inside a 2,500-square-foot (230-square-meter) building with the appearance and dimensions of a standard one-story home.
Colorado has some of the weakest oversight of funeral homes in the nation with no routine inspections or qualification requirements for funeral home operators.
There’s no indication state regulators visited the site or contacted Hallford until more than 10 months after the Penrose funeral home’s registration expired. State lawmakers gave regulators the authority to inspect funeral homes without the owners’ consent last year, but no additional money was provided for increased inspections.
Associated Press reporter Amy Beth Hanson contributed from Helena, Montana.
Bedayn is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.