LAKE COUNTY, Colo. (KDVR) — Elizabeth Witthoeft loved being pregnant. Pictures with her fiancée David Roemer show a happy couple looking forward to parenthood.
When their baby boy Donovan was stillborn they were devastated and prepared for their son’s remains by buying an infant size urn.
“When the ashes were finally delivered to them, the bag of ashes was so big there was no conceivable way the ashes could fit into that urn,” said attorney Remington Fang, “They received about 20 times the amount of ash they probably should have.”
Fang represents the couple now suing Lake County Coroner Shannon Kent who operates funeral homes across Colorado’s central mountain area.
According to the lawsuit, “It was later discovered through chemical and other scientific analysis that the cremains of plaintiffs’ son were comingled with at least one other person.”
Colorado statue prohibits comingling of ashes unless expressly authorized by next of kin.
Colo. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 12-135-307 (6) Cremains shall not be commingled with other cremains in final disposition or scattering without written authorization from the next of kin unless the disposition or scattering occurs within a dedicated cemetery or consecrated grounds used exclusively for those purposes.)
Fang said, “The report we have says the bag contained at least one other individual, but not only one other individual, but contained portions of surgical material, metal and jewelry,”
The problem solvers found the Leadville couple is not alone.
Chantal Reh was also looking forward to being a mother, but her baby girl was diagnosed with a rare disease and was stillborn.
Reh and her fiancee went to a Kent funeral home in Gypsym expecting to see their baby named Christie Bloom before cremation. Reh said, “We went there dressed up in outfits to see her again and take pictures but when we got there she refused to let us see her.”
Both families claim Shannon and his wife Staci did not provide documentation showing a chain of custody or paperwork with ashes, were difficult to communicate with and did not return phone calls.
“Now we are really unsure if the ashes are my baby. It’s pretty discomforting,” said Reh. The couple became suspicious when they only received an urn sealed shut with no documentation.
“How would you feel if you woke up every morning kissing an urn? Going to work and putting it in a window so it can have sunshine and it might not be your baby, your wife your brother. It’s horrible.” Reh said.
The problem solvers located documents from 2019 where state regulators found Kent’s mortuary methods did not meet professional standards. Fang said, “By their own admission, their own report they knew in January of 2019 that this guy said he was keeping bodies not in the refrigerator but in the garage all day at the Gypsum location. Shouldn’t that have got them to do something a lot sooner than they did? One would hope so. One would hope so.”
Colorado’s Department of Regulatory Agencies (DORA) shut down the Leadville and Gypsum locations last month 11 days after sheriffs’ deputies served a search warrant. According to search warrant documents, deputies found the stench so bad they stopped the search to red tag the building for hazardous waste.
Documents and video show deputies finding five bodies at the Bailey-Kent Funeral Home in Leadville with only one body identified simply as ‘John Doe’ from 2013.
Deputies also discovered a pile of used body bags and used gloves plus paperwork piled several feet high.
One section of the search warrant reads, “I observed a blue body bag and appeared that a body was left out of refrigeration. This bag was leaking fluids, out of the bag and onto the floor.”
District Attorney for the 5th Judicial District Bruce Brown called the findings disturbing.
Brown said, “These are public health issues so we want to make sure the premises of a mortuary is kept clean and doesn’t present a hazard to the general public.”
DORA may have closed two of Kents’ funeral homes, but the criminal case into what investigators found rotting inside is stalled. Kent’s defense attorney successfully moved the case’s jurisdiction to prosecutors in the 9th Judicial District. A move Brown is appealing to Colorado’s Supreme Court.
Brown said, “I’m responsive and responsible to be accountable to the people in my district. I think it’s important that I see this through to an end.”
The baby Donovan civil case that sparked the latest criminal investigation continues in court while other families wait for justice.
Reh said, “For me the hardest part is hearing about wives and children that have to go through this. there is no justice for it but it has to stop.” The Lake County Sheriff’s office is asking anyone who believes they are a victim of a crime related to Kent Funeral Homes to contact their office.
According to the Kent Funeral Homes website, the company operates homes not only in Leadville and Gypsum but Buena Vista, Fairplay, Silverthorne and Idaho Springs.
Calls to Kent and his attorney were not returned.