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Coroner’s warning ignored by state regulators as bodies piled up in Penrose funeral home


PENROSE, Colo. (KRDO) - Years before the grisly discovery at the Return to Nature Funeral Home, there were concerns about what was happening inside the walls of the Penrose funeral home.

Arrest records reveal Fremont County Coroner Randy Keller tried to alert regulators of body storage and refrigeration concerns back in May 2020.

The Department of Regulatory Agencies (DORA) admitted to KRDO13 Investigates, after weeks of questioning, it received an email from Keller then. However, the state agency that oversees funeral homes refuses to release the email, citing the ongoing investigation into Return to Nature funeral home. DORA also says it has no idea if regulators responded to Keller's email.

"The email indicates the Coroner received phone calls regarding refrigeration issues at one of the local funeral homes in his county. He did not provide the origin of the phone calls or name the funeral home in question, and indicated that he was unaware if the concerns were justified. The email indicates that if the Office of Funeral Home and Crematory Registration was unable to provide an inspection that he would perform one. Mr. Keller did not provide results of an inspection, or any follow up related to the phone calls he received. We were unable to find any additional communication from Mr. Keller. Our office reached out to Mr. Keller on October 13, 2023 to offer our support and inquire about any assistance we could provide his office. It was at that point that Mr. Keller informed us that his email in 2020 was in reference to Return to Nature." 

Email from DORA

DORA also appears to have shifted the blame to state laws at the time because the agency didn't have the authority to inspect funeral homes in 2020. 

Coroner Keller declined to interview with KRDO13 Investigates about the issue saying he couldn't talk due to the ongoing criminal case. 

Impacted families say they want the state to be held accountable for ignoring the warning. 

"If they didn't think that that was a credible complaint coming from a coroner, I think Governor Polis should look at that. I think, you know, there should be an investigation," Shelia-Canfield Jones said. "Maybe we need something beyond Dora. Maybe we need a group that's just handling mortuaries and crematories." 

It ultimately took the Fremont County Sheriff's and Coroner's Offices getting complaints from residents last fall for regulators to actually go inside. 

In October, inspectors finally got in touch with funeral home owner Jon Hallford. Hallford told regulators over the phone that he had a problem but insisted he was running a 'taxidermy' business. 

After he failed to show up for an inspection, regulators issued a cease-and-desist order at the Penrose funeral home, whose license had expired 11 months earlier. 

Lawmakers KRDO13 Investigates spoke with, acknowledging that this is a problem and could be due to the lack of funding DORA receives from the state. 

"Our State Department doesn't dedicate a lot of time and employee power to visiting these funeral homes across the state because they just don't have the budget to do it," State Sen. Dylan Roberts said. 

The National Funeral Director's Association (NFDA) says the fact that Colorado's regulators only inspect funeral homes when a complaint is filed is one of the biggest issues our state faces. 

KRDO13 Investigates found that no state employee is dedicated to overseeing funeral homes. Mike Nicodemus, the VP of Cremation Services at NFDA, believes that is our state's biggest issue. 

"They need to tighten up regulations, and they need to inspect them," Nicodemus said. "You mean to tell me if someone went and inspected that place, they wouldn't have known something was wrong?"

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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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