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190 decaying bodies were found at a Colorado funeral home. Owners charged with COVID fraud of US$880K

A hearse and van sit outside the Return to Nature Funeral Home in Penrose, Colo., on Oct. 6, 2023. (David Zalubowski/AP Photo) A hearse and van sit outside the Return to Nature Funeral Home in Penrose, Colo., on Oct. 6, 2023. (David Zalubowski/AP Photo)
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DENVER -

A couple who owned a Colorado funeral home where authorities last year discovered 190 decaying bodies were indicted on federal charges that they misspent nearly US$900,000 in pandemic relief funds on vacations, cosmetic surgery, jewelry and other personal expenses, according to court documents unsealed Monday.

The indictment reaffirms accusations from state prosecutors that Jon and Carie Hallford gave families dry concrete instead of cremated ashes and alleges the couple buried the wrong body on two occasions.

The couple also collected more than US$130,000 from families for cremations and burial services they never provided, the indictment said.

The 15 charges brought by the federal grand jury are in addition to more than 200 criminal counts already pending against the Hallfords in Colorado state court for corpse abuse, money laundering, theft and forgery.

The federal offenses carry potential penalties of 20 years in prison and US$250,000 in fines, the indictment said.

On Monday, the owners of the Return to Nature Funeral Home in Colorado Springs entred a federal courtroom bound in shackles as they made an initial appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge Scott Varholak.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Neff argued the couple were a flight risk, after they fled to Oklahoma last October when the decaying bodies were first discovered and before their arrest on state charges on November 8.

“They simply evaporated from the community,” Neff said.

The judge did not immediately decide if the couple should be released pending trial. He set an arraignment hearing for Thursday.

Carie Hallford’s attorney, Chaz Melihercik, said he would argue against detention at the next hearing. Jon Hallford’s public defender told the judge that the husband had been following their bond conditions in the state case and that detention was unnecessary.

Before the new indictment was unsealed, public records showed the Hallfords had been plagued by debt — facing evictions and lawsuits for unpaid cremations even as they spent lavishly on themselves.

The indictment alleges the couple used US$882,300 in pandemic relief funds to buy items that also included a vehicle, dinners, tuition for their child and cryptocurrency. The fraud involved three loans obtained between March 2020 and October 2021, authorities said.

Previously released court documents from the state abuse of corpse case reveal more details about what they were spending money on.

They bought a GMC Yukon and an Infiniti that together were worth over US$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.

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

The couple have not yet entered pleas to the state’s abuse of corpse charges.

Carie Hallford’s attorney in the state case, Michael Stuzynski, declined to comment on the federal indictment. Jon Hallford’s attorney in the state case works for the public defenders office, which does not comment on pending cases.

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

The couple once 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 coronavirus pandemic. The business’ website featured logos for FEMA and the Department of Defense.

FEMA has said they did not have any contracts with the funeral home. A defense department database search also showed no contracts with Return to Nature.

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

The Hallfords' alleged lies, money laundering, forgery and manipulation over the past four years devastated hundreds of grieving family members.

The 190 bodies were discovered last year in a bug-infested storage building in the small town of Penrose, about two hours south of Denver. Some of the remains had languished since 2019.

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

As the decomposing bodies were identified, families learned that the ashes they'd received could not have been the remains of their loves ones.

As far back as 2020, there were concerns raised about the business’s 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 weakest funeral home regulations in the U.S. Funeral home operators in the state don’t have to graduate high school, let alone study mortuary science or pass an exam. The Hallfords case and others in recent years spurred Colorado lawmakers to introduce legislation to strengthen oversight with rules that are in line with or exceed other states'.

Brown reported from Billings, Montana. 

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