Funeral home owners appear in El Paso County court
BY SAVANNAH ELLER email@example.com
The front row of the courtroom was filled Tuesday with people holding photographs of family members identified or still missing from Return to Nature Funeral Home as Jon and Carie Hallford made their first in-person court appearance in El Paso County.
The couple, facing charges in the improper storage of 190 bodies at a building in Penrose, was in court after previous virtual advisements. The courtroom was packed to watch the Hallfords receive court dates for their preliminary hearings in January, when they will face 250plus felony charges relating to abuse of a corpse, forgery, theft and money laundering.
Abby Swoveland held up a photo of her late mother, Sally Swoveland, identified among the bodies found at the Penrose facility.
“I will be at every single court appearance,” she said after the hearing. “I feel good about today because I was sure to hold my mom’s picture up, and I saw them see it. That meant everything to me, that they had to look at it.”
Swoveland’s mother was identified among the remains found in Penrose after complaints led authorities to discover what court records have described as “abhorrent conditions” at the scene in October.
Some of the remains had death dates as far back as 2019, according to an affidavit. Families were told their loved ones were cremated, receiving substitute materials that were not their ashes, according to previous Gazette reporting and allegations in court documents.
Swoveland said that since receiving word on the positive identification she’s been able to have her mother properly cremated and held another service.
“She’s back with us now,” Swoveland said.
Michelle Johnston, also watching in court Tuesday, has not been as fortunate yet with recovering her late husband, Ken. She was in tears describing how the uncertainty has affected her grief process, which started seven months ago when her Vietnam War veteran husband died at home from COVID-19 complications.
“I feel like I’m in this waiting phase, and I can’t really move on,” she said.
Both women said they have connected with other family members of victims, forming Facebook groups and connecting over shared anger.
“It’s not something ... that anyone understands. It’s such a weird situation,” Swoveland said. “But to have support from other people who are experiencing this same thing makes a huge difference.”
Swoveland said she and other family members are also planning to push for reform at the state level. She said she met with a lawmaker last week via Zoom to talk about how Colorado could change its funeral home regulations, which are some of the most lax in the country.
“The work still needs to continue with our laws here in Colorado and making them tougher,” Swoveland said. “This illustrates that, and we owe it to all of the victims.”
Heather DeWolf held up a photo of her late son, Zach DeWolf, who died in 2020 at age 33. Return to Nature handled his remains, according to The Associated Press.
“I don’t view them honestly as human at this point. I don’t believe a human could do this,” DeWolf said.
Though her son’s remains had yet to be identified among the many discovered at the facility, she feared the worst: The container she had rocked like a baby, thinking it was her son’s ashes, had some other material inside.
“I had not rocked with him since he was a child. And I could put my arms around him and just hold him,” DeWolf told The Associated Press, her eyes watering. “And now, looking back, I don’t know if I was rocking my son or rocking concrete.”
How the bodies allegedly were mishandled remained unknown to the public as defense attorneys objected Tuesday to prosecutors’ request to unseal affidavits. El Paso County Magistrate Hilary Gurney said she would defer the decision to a future judge overseeing the case.
The Hallfords were arrested in Oklahoma in November after allegedly fleeing Colorado to avoid prosecution.
Jon Hallford next court appearance, a preliminary hearing, is scheduled Jan. 4. Carie Hallford’s preliminary hearing is scheduled Jan. 11.
The Hallfords are each being held on $2 million bail at the El Paso County jail.
The Gazette, Colorado Springs