Nearly 200 bodies recovered from a Colorado funeral home accused of improper storage
At least 189 dead and decaying bodies were recovered from the Return to Nature Funeral Home in Colorado this week — that's roughly 75 more decedents than police originally believed to be onsite when they began investigating the facility this month.
Police first searched the funeral home, located roughly 30 miles south of Colorado Springs in the town of Penrose, on Oct. 3, after receiving a report of strong odors coming from the building.
What they found inside was "horrific," according to Fremont County Sheriff Allen Cooper, who declined to go into further detail during an Oct. 6 press conference on the investigation.
According to its website, Return to Nature offers green and natural burial services, which allow bodies to decompose underground, without the use of metal caskets or chemicals.
The practice is legal in the state of Colorado, but the law requires bodies that are not embalmed to be refrigerated within 24 hours of death.
Fremont County Coroner Randy Keller declined to say whether the remains discovered at Return to Nature were intended for natural burial, but he did note that they were "improperly stored."
Investigators originally estimated the 2500-square-foot building contained about 115 bodies.
But after transporting all remains to the El Paso County Coroner's Office, they've raised that number to 189 individuals, according to a Tuesday update from the Fremont County Sheriff's office. The total number could rise as the identification process continues, the coroner said.
During the Oct. 6 press conference, Keller said that his teams were using fingerprints, dental records and DNA samples to conduct what they expect to be a "very lengthy" identification process that could last several months.
Authorities have taken special care to avoid biohazards after an employee with the county coroner's office sustained a rash upon initially entering the facility. She made a full recovery after receiving medical treatment, Keller said.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis issued a verbal disaster declaration in order to free up additional resources for the investigation, an effort that has included both state and federal bureaus of investigation, three county coroners' offices, the state emergency management agency and state and local police agencies.
Some of the investigators come from an FBI team that have been dispatched to mass casualty events like 9/11 and airline crashes.
Officials said that it was still unclear whether a crime had been committed. No arrests or charges have been made in connection with the case. NPR's efforts to reach the owners of the funeral home were not immediately successful.
Earlier this month, the sheriff confirmed that police were in contact with the owners of the funeral home, who were so far being cooperative.
According to an investigation by the Associated Press, the owners were evicted from one of their properties after failing to pay their taxes and were sued by a crematory that stopped doing business with them.
The AP found that those issues did not appear to attract inspectors in a state with notoriously lax funeral home regulations — even after the company's registration expired in November.
For now, officials say their top priority is notifying families of the known decedents.
Keller said his office is undertaking "extensive coordination" to ensure that "families are given accurate information to prevent further victimization as they grieve their loved ones."
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