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Over 115 decomposing bodies found inside Colorado funeral home, investigation underway

PENROSE, Colo. (KRDO) - Investigators confirm over 115 decomposing bodies were found inside a Fremont County funeral home. Now, multiple agencies are working together to mitigate the possible hazardous situation they have on their hands and asking loved ones of possible victims to come forward.

During a press conference at 10 a.m., the Fremont County Sheriff's Office (FCSO) provided more insight into the investigation.

Wednesday night, 13 Investigates broke that a multi-jurisdiction investigation had begun at the defunct funeral home. At the press conference, Fremont County Coroner Randy Keller said earlier this week, his office was contacted by the FCSO after a report came in of an "odor" coming from the building identified as the Return to Nature Funeral Home in Penrose.

After obtaining a warrant, investigators entered the facility and discovered dozens of improperly stored bodies.

Due to the magnitude of this situation, the FCSO requested assistance from the Coloraod Burea of Investigation and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

"Without providing too much detail to avoid further victimizing these families, the funeral home where the bodies were improperly stored was horrific," Fremont County Sheriff Allen Cooper said during the presser.

During the initial entry of the building, Keller confirmed a deputy coroner sustained a rash of some type from "something" in the building. She received medical care and is fine now, but Keller said this is why hazmat has to be in the building and determine the next steps before the investigation can move forward.

Keller said the Colorado Coroner Association Coroner Assist Team is on standby and ready to provide additional resources. His office has also made arrangements with the Douglas County Coroner's Office and the El Paso County Coroner's Office.

Special Agent Mark Michalek, who serves as the special agent in charge of the FBI's Denver Field Office, said the agency is providing specialized forensic support. The Denver-based response team and hazardous response team have already been working with the FCSO.

"We at the FBI extend our deepest sympathies to the families of the decedents, the community, and those impacted by this horrible situation," said Michalek.

Additional evidence response teams from other FBI field offices across the country, along with specialized teams from the laboratory division in Quantico, Va., will be arriving over the next couple of days to help with the investigation. These teams include the FBI Technical Hazardous Response Team and the FBI Disaster Recovery Team. Those teams have additional training and specialized equipment to process scenes of national magnitude, including the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Initial work will be to assess the scene to determine if there are any bio or chemical hazards and create a plan to ensure investigators are safe to proceed.

Right now, officials say they're working on mitigating the dangers the facility poses. once the scene is deemed safe and the appropriate personal protection equipment has been issued, the dignified treatment of the deceased is the next priority.

The Fremont County Coroener's Office is working to secure trucks to transport the bodies to a second location where the office can control the environment to limit further degradation and assist in the identification process. To make the process of removing the bodies secure and away from the public's view, tents or fencing will be put up at the scene.

Once in that secure place, notification to immediate family members can begin. Coroner Keller will be overseeing this process. Keller said this is going to be a very, very lengthy process and could take several months. Once someone is identified, their immediate families will be notified as soon as possible.

"I want to assure everyone that the loved ones in this facility will be treated with the utmost care and respect. Our hearts go out to everyone impacted by this tragedy and we will take every measure possible to get families the answers they deserve." Keller 

At this time, no arrests have been made. Sheriff Cooper said investigators aren't speculating on arrest or charges at this time, but his office is working closely with the 11th Judicial DA's Office and the US Attorney's Office on all aspects of this investigation along with state and federal partners. The FBI has opened a parallel federal investigation to determine if there was a federal violation made.

Additionally, Fremont County has declared a local disaster emergency which makes state resources available to the team. Numerous other agencies including the FBI, the CBI, and the Colorado Emergency Management Team are either already on sight or en route to assist with the investigation. 

On Oct. 5, Governor Jared Polis issued a verbal disaster declaration for the Penrose incident. On Oct. 6, the sheriff received a confirmation that a disaster declaration was in place. 

Below is a statement provided by the Governor's Office:

“The Governor issued a verbal disaster declaration last evening. The emergency declaration provides resources from the state to support the investigation and the clean-up of the facility.  The declaration is a requirement in the process to begin supporting our local jurisdictions.  The State EOC is directly supporting these resource requests along with our CBI, DORA and DHSEM.  Additional agencies may be added as needs change during the incident.”

Governor's Office

Officials established a family crisis center and a phone line for concerned family members to call and provide information about loved ones who might be involved in this "tragic situation." 

People can get help via:

Phone: (719)-276-7421 from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
In-person: 1901 East Main, Canon City, CO from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Victims' assistance personnel are expected to start responding to messages on Friday.

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Chelsea Brentzel

Chelsea is the Assistant News Director for KRDO NewsChannel 13. Learn more about Chelsea here.

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Shelby Filangi


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