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Owners of a Colorado funeral home where 190 decaying bodies were found are charged with COVID fraud

DENVER (AP) — 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 $900,000 in pandemic relief funds on vacations, cosmetic surgery, jewelry a
FILE - This combination of booking photos provided by the Muskogee County, Okla., Sheriff's Office shows Jon Hallford, left, and Carie Hallford, the owners of Return to Nature Funeral Home. The couple who owned the Colorado funeral home — where 190 decaying bodies were discovered last year — have been indicted on federal charges for fraudulently obtaining nearly $900,000 in pandemic relief funds from the U.S. government, according to court documents unsealed Monday, April 15, 2024. (Muskogee County Sheriff's Office via AP, File)

DENVER (AP) — 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 $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 $130,000 from families for cremations and burial services they never provided, the indictment said.

The grand jury brought federal charges 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 15 federal offenses carry potential penalties of 20 years in prison and $250,000 in fines, according to the indictment.

The Hallfords could not be reached immediately for comment and they didn’t have attorneys listed yet for the federal charges. They were due to appear before a U.S. magistrate judge Monday afternoon.

Even before the new indictment was unsealed, public records revealed that the Hallfords had been plagued by debt, facing evictions and lawsuits for unpaid cremations even as they spent lavishly.

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

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 $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 $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 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.

Once, the couple 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 the funeral home.

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

The new federal charges are the latest example of the owners’ alleged lies, money laundering, forgery and manipulation over the past four years, devastating hundreds of grieving families.

The discovery of the 190 bodies last year, some that had languished since 2019, left families to learn their loved ones weren’t in the ashes they were given by the funeral home. Instead, they were decaying in a bug-infested building about two hours south of Denver.

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

When the decomposing bodies were identified in the funeral home’s facility, families learned that the ashes they held 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 the most lax regulations for funeral homes in the country. Those who operate them don’t have to graduate high school, let alone get a degree in mortuary science or pass an exam. The case has pushed lawmakers to introduce bills bringing the rules in line with most other states, even surpassing some.

Jesse Bedayn And Colleen Slevin, The Associated Press