Kent Funeral Home lawsuit hits snag with criminal investigation
EAGLE — An ongoing criminal investigation into Lake County Coroner Shannon Kent and his wife, Staci Kent, is causing temporary setbacks for a civil lawsuit against their former funeral homes in Colorado.
Kent’s attorney, Amy Johnson, requested a stay on depositions for the lawsuit in Eagle County District Court until that criminal investigation into the Kents is closed because of a concern they might incriminate themselves in depositions yet to be taken for the civil lawsuit, or have to take the Fifth Amendment.
“My clients can’t testify in this case, especially when they don’t know what those charges are yet, and this (criminal) investigation seems to be very slow moving,” Johnson told Judge Paul R. Dunkelman during a Feb. 5 hearing.
A criminal investigation into the Kents by the Lake County Sheriff’s Office reportedly started nearly one year ago after a complaint about their former Leadville funeral home’s handling of human remains. No charges have been filed to date.
The civil lawsuit was filed in July 2020 on behalf of a Leadville couple. It alleges that Kent’s funeral homes delivered co-mingled cremains for their stillborn infant, providing them with unlabeled cremains far in excess of what was expected for an infant, with no contract, receipt or other paperwork.
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The cremation is believed to have been done at the Kents’ former funeral home in Gypsum, and an analysis found the infant’s cremains co-mingled with at least one other person, containing bone fragments from an adult as well as surgical material, jewelry and other metals, according to the lawsuit.
Remington Fang, the attorney who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Leadville couple, told Judge Dunkelman that he doesn’t want to see the civil lawsuit “drag on forever” because of the unresolved criminal investigation.
“We can’t sit around and simply wait for the Lake County sheriff to indict the Kents, file charges, have the case go through motions, to appeals, all the way up to the Supreme Court, theoretically,” Fang said. “If they are asking for a stay until all possible exculpatory evidence can’t be obtained, this could go on forever, frankly.”
Judge Dunkelman declined to issue the full stay that was requested. Instead, discovery and depositions in the civil lawsuit can continue, but for now without the depositions of Shannon Kent or Staci Kent. The parties will then meet again in two months to see if anything has changed in regard to the investigation and potential criminal charges or the Kents’ ability to be deposed.
The goal in issuing the partial stay, Judge Dunkelman said, is to balance the rights of the Kents with the Leadville couple’s interest in seeing the lawsuit move forward. “I think that is the most appropriate way to move forward right now,” he said.
Operations at Kent’s funeral home and cremation businesses in Leadville and Gypsum were temporarily suspended last October, after the execution of a search warrant at the funeral home in Leadville.
The search warrant reportedly found unsanitary and possibly unlawful conditions at the Leadville funeral home. Those included used body bags, medical gloves and surgical equipment with dried bodily fluids on them piled on the floor; a body bag containing a decedent that was not refrigerated and leaking fluids; numerous bags of unlabeled cremains; several bodies in refrigeration wrapped in sheets or blankets without identifying tags or paperwork; a small unmarked casket containing a stillborn infant Kent told police had been “abandoned“; and paperwork scattered several feet deep on the floor.
Kent who remains coroner in Lake County, voluntarily signed an agreement with state regulators in December, requiring him to permanently exit the funeral home and cremation business in Colorado.
Both of the Kents already face criminal charges in Lake County.
Shannon Kent is charged with second-degree official misconduct, a petty offense, and perjury, a class 4 felony, while his wife Staci Kent is charged with perjury and forgery, a class 5 felony. The charges stem from grand jury testimony about Shannon Kent allegedly allowing his wife to act as a deputy coroner without proper authorizations.
Prosecutors have said a criminal investigation is ongoing for possible state mortuary code violations.
Tom Lotshaw can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.