After 189 bodies were found in Colorado funeral home, evidence suggests families received fake ashes

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A hearse and debris can be seen at the rear of the Return to Nature Funeral Home in Penrose, Colo. Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023. Authorities said Thursday they were investigating the improper storage of human remains at a southern Colorado funeral home that performs “green” burials without embalming chemicals or metal caskets. (Jerilee Bennett/The Gazette via AP) /The Gazette via AP)

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — A Colorado funeral home where 189 decaying bodies were discovered this month appears to have fabricated cremation records and may have given families fake ashes, according to information gathered by The Associated Press from customers and crematories.

The families that did business with Return to Nature Funeral Home fear their loved ones weren’t cremated at all and instead could be among the yet unidentified corpses authorities discovered after responding to a report of an “ abhorrent smell.”

“My mom’s last wish was for her remains to be scattered in a place she loved, not rotting away in a building,” said Tanya Wilson, who believes the ashes she spread in Hawaii in August were fake. “Any peace that we had, thinking that we honored her wishes, you know, was just completely ripped away from us.”

Return to Nature gave Wilson’s family and some others death certificates stating their loved ones’ remains had been handled by one of two crematories. But those businesses told the AP they were not performing cremations for Return to Nature on the dates included on the certificates.

Calls and texts sent to numbers listed for Return to Nature and owners Jon and Carie Hallford have gone unanswered since the discovery of the decaying bodies. No arrests have been made. Law enforcement officials have said Return to Nature’s owners were cooperating as investigators sought to determine any criminal wrongdoing.

The AP reviewed four death certificates shared by families. All list a crematory owned by Wilbert Funeral Services, but the deaths came at least five months after the company stopped doing cremations for the financially troubled Return to Nature Funeral Home last November. Lisa Epps, attorney for Wilbert, said members of at least 10 families told the company they had death certificates from after November.

A second crematory, Roselawn Funeral Home in Pueblo, Colorado, was contacted by a family last week that had a 2021 death certificate from Return to Nature listing Roselawn as the crematory. Roselawn did not do the cremation, said its manager, Rudy Krasovec.

None of the families the AP interviewed received an identification tag or certificate that experts say are usually given to ensure cremations are authentic. Members of all four families described a similar consistency of the ashes that seemed like dry concrete. Two mixed some ashes with water and said they solidified. Dry concrete has been used before by funeral homes to mimic human ashes.

Stephanie Ford said her dry-witted adrenaline junkie husband, Wesley Ford, had nightmares of waking up in a coffin and hated the idea of being buried and his body decaying.

“He wanted to be cremated,” she said, “and back to the earth quickly.”

Wesley Ford died in April, and Return to Nature handled the cremation. When Stephanie Ford learned of the grim discovery at the funeral home this month, her daughter, a physician, took a closer look at the ashes.

“Mom, that’s not dad,” she told her mother.

“I know logically it’s not my fault,” said Stephanie Ford, pushing the words through tears. “There’s a little bit of guilt on my part that I let him down.”

Public records show the Hallfords and their company, which opened in 2017 and offered cremations and “green” burials without embalming fluids, were beset by recent financial and legal troubles. Among the problems were a forced eviction, unpaid taxes and a lawsuit by Wilbert, which received a $21,000 judgment in June because Return to Nature failed to pay for “a couple hundred” cremations, Epps said.

When Return to Nature gave the ashes to Wilson’s family, her brother, Jesse Elliott, thought they were unusually heavy. Elliott confronted Carie Hallford about his concerns.

“Jesse, of course this is your mother,” Elliott recalled Hallford telling him after she handed him a June death certificate that said Wilbert handled the cremation.

With both siblings skeptical, Wilson took some of the ashes to a different funeral home for a second opinion. Funeral director Amber Flickinger from Platt’s Funeral Home told the AP that the ashes were unusually fine and dark, adding, “I’ve never seen anything that looks like that in the range of what cremated remains would typically expect to look like.”

After the bodies were found at Return to Nature, Michelle Johnston also became skeptical of the ashes that the funeral home said were of her husband, Ken, a retired UPS driver with a gentle demeanor. After mixing the ashes with water, she said, it looked like concrete.

“I was kind of getting to a place where I wasn’t losing it every day,” she said, and now, “I don’t know where my husband is.”

Properly cremated remains are made up of bone fragments that do not have any organic material left, which means they lack DNA that could be used to identify individuals, said Barbara Kemmis, director of the Cremation Association of North America. Sometimes RNA is preserved in the bone fragments, and that can distinguish if the ashes are from a male or female and if they are human or from another animal, she said.

Determining that ashes are fake can be more straightforward, particularly when they’ve been substituted with concrete. A simple test entails wetting the material and seeing if it hardens when it dries, Kemmis said. Real ashes won’t solidify and would stay brittle, said Faith Haug, who chairs the mortuary science program at Colorado’s Arapahoe Community College.

Authorities could be waiting to bring charges until they determine if there are any more improperly stored bodies, said Ian Farrell, a criminal law expert at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.

Potential charges under state law could include misdemeanor violations of mortuary regulations and misdemeanor fraud, Farrell said. Each body could result in separate charges, meaning potential fines topping $1 million. The maximum consecutive sentence for misdemeanors is 2 years in jail, he said.

If any federal charges were brought, the penalties potentially could be more severe. In January, a Colorado funeral home operator accused of illegally selling body parts and giving clients fake ashes received a 20-year prison sentence for federal mail fraud.

Abby Swoveland hired Return to Nature when her mother, Sally Swoveland, passed away. The senior Swoveland had run a muzzleloader gun shop called The Mountain Man for nearly 50 years with a sense of humor and a sharp tongue.

When Abby Swoveland called Wilbert Funeral Services, listed on the death certificate, and learned they had long ago stopped doing business with Return to Nature, she was devastated.

“It completely has undone any healing that was taking place,” Swoveland said.

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