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DA: Penrose funeral home owners debated setting bodies on fire in Colorado before arrest

DA: Penrose funeral home owners debated setting bodies on fire in Colorado before arrest
DA: Penrose funeral home owners debated setting bodies on fire in Colorado before arrest 01:18

FBI agents are revealing some gruesome details about what was discovered inside the Return to Nature Funeral Home in Penrose in court on Thursday. Text messages between the couple revealed in court indicate they were considering options like "building a large fire" or digging "a big hole" and using "lye" to dispose of the bodies that were stacking up inside the building in Penrose.

The texts and testimony were part of the preliminary hearing on Thursday in El Paso County Court for Carie Hallford, a co-owner of the funeral home where 190 "improperly stored" bodies were discovered in October of last year. 

Carie Hallford Wagoner County Sheriff

Jon and Carie Hallford were arrested in November of last year in Oklahoma on several crimes, including abuse of a corpse, theft, money laundering and forgery, which are all felonies. 

Investigators who entered the funeral home last fall testified they found stacks of partially covered human remains, bodily fluids several inches deep on the floor, along with flies and maggots. Nearly two dozen of those bodies had death dates from 2019, 61 were from 2020, 16 were from 2022 and 40 were from 2023. The remains included adults, infants and fetuses. 

The bodies were being stored at room temperature in the building in Penrose, a town located a little more than 100 miles southwest of Denver. When investigators entered the building, it was 70 degrees inside. The temperature range to store bodies is typically 35-39 degrees. Some of the bodies were partially covered or wrapped in plastic and duct tape and other remains were in cardboard boxes used for cremation or in plastic totes. 

The remains of a U.S. Army sergeant who was supposed to be buried at Pikes Peak National Cemetery were found inside the building. That triggered an exhumation of the casket at the cemetery where a different body of the opposite sex was found inside the military casket.

Investigators also discovered animal remains and bags of concrete. There were three "makeshift" refrigeration units inside but those were not operating. 

Law enforcement, including the FBI, were investigating the site of a funeral home in Fremont County.  KKTV 11News

There were no 2021 dates of death for remains found inside the building in Penrose. Employees working for Return to Nature Funeral Home in 2021 have told investigators there was a proper disposition of bodies during that time.

Because of the statue of limitations, forgery charges could not be filed for all falsified death certificates; there were 60 counts of forgery filed but a total of 189 death certificates allegedly were falsified.  

Text exchanges between the couple were introduced in court as evidence, some dating back as 2020. In one exchange, Jon Hallford messaged his wife that they needed to begin "restoring the building in Penrose" and appeared to suggest various ways to get rid of the bodies, according to Kevin Clark, an investigator with the district attorney's office.

"Options: A, build a new machine ASAP. B, dig a big hole and use lye. Where? C, dig a small hole and build a large fire. Where? D, I go to prison, which is probably going to happen," the message said, according to Clark. It was not clear what the "new machine" referred to.

In yet another text, from last year, Jon Hallford wrote about dealing with decaying bodies before he appears to give a dinner order.

"I want to take a shower as soon as I get back because while I was making the transfer, I got people juice on me. Want the double cheeseburger, lettuce, wrapped with everything minus tomatoes, please," the text said according to Clark.

Carie Hallford's preliminary hearing was continued to Jan. 17 at 1:30 p.m.

Jon Hallford Wagoner County Sheriff

Last week, Jon Hallford appeared before a judge where his bail was lowered from $2 million to $100,000. He remained in custody as of Jan. 12. If released from custody, he must surrender his passport and have no contact with the victims. He is set to appear in court for a continuance of the preliminary hearing on Feb. 8 at 1:30 p.m. 

The Fremont County Sheriff's Office began an investigation on Oct. 4, 2023 after neighbors reported an odor emanating from the Penrose facility located at 31 Werner Road. 

According to the affidavit for their arrests in Oklahoma, Jon Hallford told a Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies investigator that he was "using the building in Penrose to learn how to do taxidermy" and that he "knew he had a problem there." 

After the search warrant was issued, investigators found the 190 bodies inside the building and said the "conditions within the building were abhorrent" and that "bodies were located stacked on top of each other and some were not in body bags." 

The scene outside the Return to Nature Funeral Home in Penrose.  CBS

All decedents were removed from the funeral home on Oct. 13, 2023 and transported to the El Paso County Coroner's Office.

A total of 30-40 bodies still have not been identified. 

The Environmental Protection Agency had scheduled crews to mobilize to the site around Jan. 17 for demolition. That date has been delayed due to "final logistical arrangements and cold temperatures forecasted." In a previous post, the EPA said the demolition will take approximately 10 days, weather permitting.

Return to Nature started in 2017 and offered cremations and "green" burials without embalming fluids.  

Additional Information from the Fremont County Sheriff's Office: 

Families who have not already done so are asked to go to and complete the questionnaire to assist in this process.

If you believe you or your loved one might have been impacted and you have further questions, please send an email to This is the most effective way to connect with resources; a person will respond to all emails from family members.

Colleen Slevin and Matthew Brown with the Associated Press contributed to this report(© Copyright 2024 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.) 

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