At least 115 bodies that were improperly stored have been found at a building owned by a funeral home that offers “green” burials, authorities in Colorado announced Friday.
The bodies were found Wednesday at the Return to Nature Funeral Home in Penrose, Fremont County Sheriff Allen Cooper said Friday during a news conference.
Cooper called the discovery of the bodies “horrific” and “disturbing.”
No arrests have been made, Cooper said. Authorities don’t want to speculate on charges, although Cooper mentioned officials are in contact with local and federal prosecutors.
The investigation is his office’s “highest priority,” Cooper said.
The Colorado Bureau of Investigation and FBI are assisting in the probe, officials said.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis on Thursday made a disaster declaration of the site to free up state agencies for assistance, Cooper said.
Fremont County Coroner Randy Keller, who also spoke at Friday’s media briefing, said removing the bodies from the funeral home and identifying them through fingerprints, medical or dental records, or DNA, will be a long process.
“With the number of decedents we have in this facility, and the identification process that needs to be completed, this could take several months,” Keller said. “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.”
Once bodies are identified, families of the deceased will be notified as “soon as possible,” Keller said.
Deputies were first dispatched to a building on Tuesday to investigate reports of a suspicious incident, the sheriff’s office said in a news release Thursday. When they arrived, they learned the building was owned by the Return to Nature Funeral Home based in Colorado Springs, it said.
The following day, the sheriff’s office executed a search warrant at the property, along with the Fremont County Coroner’s Office and the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies, and found human remains were being “improperly stored” at the site.
The sheriff’s office did not state what condition the bodies were in, but said a “criminal investigation” was underway.
The Return to Nature Funeral Home did not immediately respond to an overnight request for comment from NBC News. Overnight phone calls to a line that the funeral home states is available 24 hours a day also went unanswered and the voicemail inbox was full.
On its website, the funeral home says its “Mission has ALWAYS been Green Burial.”
“Green Burial is a natural way of caring for your loved one with minimal environmental impact,” the website states, adding: “Green Burial aids in the conservation of natural resources, reduction of carbon emissions and the preservation of habitat, WITHOUT the use of harsh embalming chemicals, metallic, plastic or unnatural items.”
Under Colorado law, green burials are legal, but remains that are not buried within 24 hours must be properly refrigerated. The funeral home appears to reflect this on its website, stating: “In the state of Colorado within 24 hours the body must be either embalmed or placed in a regulated temperature controlled environment, meaning under refrigeration, dry ice, etc…”
Nearby residents told The Associated Press that a putrid smell had emanated from the building.
“We just assumed it was a dead animal,” Joyce Pavetti, 73, told the news agency. She said she saw lights from law enforcement swarming the building Wednesday night and knew something was amiss.
The sheriff’s office asked that family members of deceased loved ones left in the care of the funeral home contact them by email at email@example.com or by phone through the Fremont Emergency Management call line at (719)-276-7421.
“This is an active investigation with resources being brought in from several different agencies,” it said.