Supreme Court sends criminal charges against Lake County Coroner back to the 5th District

In a 4-3 opinion overruling Lake County judge’s order for a special prosecutor, justices note DA Bruce Brown and Shannon Kent ’mix like oil and water’

Shannon Kent is the elected coroner for Lake County who recently agreed to cease operations of his six funeral home businesses in Colorado — including this one in Gypsum — and is facing at least one civil lawsuit and being investigated for possible violations of state mortuary codes.
Pam Boyd/Vail Daily

Criminal charges against Lake County’s embattled coroner, Shannon Kent, can proceed within Colorado’s 5th Judicial District, despite Kent’s concerns he cannot receive a fair trial because of bad blood between himself and District Attorney Bruce Brown, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled this December.

The 4-3 ruling overturns an earlier decision by Lake County District Court Judge Catherine J. Cheroutes. She ordered charges against Kent to be handled by a special prosecutor, noting “there is something personal about the case” for Brown, the prosecutor for Clear Creek, Eagle, Lake and Summit counties since 2012.

An 18-page majority opinion by the justices runs through numerous disputes between Brown and Kent. Kent is the elected coroner for Lake County who recently agreed to cease operations of his six funeral home businesses in Colorado and is facing at least one civil lawsuit and being investigated for possible violations of state mortuary codes.

According to that majority opinion, the “genesis of the animus” between Brown and Kent can be traced back to a complaint the Lake County sheriff filed against Kent after he allegedly sent his wife, Staci Kent, to respond to a coroner call and she showed up to a scene without a body bag.

The complaint to the Colorado Coroners Association was forwarded to Brown, who presented it to a grand jury for the 5th Judicial District. The jury indicted Kent on a petty offense charge of official misconduct for allegedly allowing his wife to act as a deputy coroner when she was not authorized to do so. That same day, Kent allegedly confronted Brown in a courthouse hallway, telling Brown he should “pull his head out of his a–.”

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Later attempting to negotiate a plea bargain, Brown reportedly told Kent’s attorney that Kent should plead guilty to the petty offense and resign as Lake County coroner because there was a possibility of a felony charge being added.

The advice apparently caused Kent to visit the district attorney’s office in Leadville, where he allegedly had a contentious interaction with a legal administrative assistant, telling the assistant that Brown had “f—– with the wrong person” and had “better watch out,” and saying that he knew people in high places. In the interaction, Kent also allegedly asked whether the assistant knew that Brown had been involved in an accident in a state car and left the scene, had been asked to leave a polling place, had refused to investigate a voter fraud case, and had declined to investigate a county employee who was dealing drugs, according to the Colorado Supreme Court ruling.

According to the justices’ opinion, Brown referred that incident to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and later spoke with Kent’s attorney, reiterating that if Kent didn’t plead guilty to the petty offense charge, “things would get really bad,” adding that people who threatened him in the past had been convicted of felonies.The investigation by CBI did not result in additional charges against Kent.

Brown did, however, reconvene the grand jury. It returned a second indictment against Kent for perjury, a class 4 felony. The charge is rooted in testimony Kent provided during the first grand jury proceeding, when he testified that his wife had been a deputy coroner for about two years, since 2017, and had not acted in an official capacity before then. The jury was presented with a death certificate Staci Kent signed in 2016. She is facing criminal charges of perjury and forgery, both felonies.

Brown also reportedly lodged a complaint against Kent with the Colorado Department of Regulatory Affairs, asking it to share any information it uncovered and not making Kent or his attorneys aware of the complaint. Because of the complaint to DORA and discovery violations for not providing evidence to Kent’s defense team, the Lake County District Court judge ruled that criminal cases against Kent should be handled by a special prosecutor.

The judge noted in her ruling that while the individual circumstances did not warrant a disqualification of Brown’s office to prosecute the case against Kent, they did warrant one when considered as a whole: “Mr. Brown is both seeking a conviction of Mr. Kent and his removal from his position. When Mr. Kent did not agree to Mr. Brown’s conditions, Mr. Brown sought additional charges. Then, Mr. Brown reported Mr. Kent to DORA but without disclosing anything to the defense. Mr. Brown did not turn over statements from complaining witnesses or from the investigation regarding the threats. These the defense had to seek out … This pattern raises grave concerns about the ability of the defendant to receive a fair trail with Mr. Brown and his office prosecuting the case.”

A majority of Colorado Supreme Court justices disagreed and overturned the decision to disqualify Brown’s office from prosecuting criminal charges against Kent. “… We conclude that the district court abused its discretion in granting Kent’s motion to disqualify Brown’s office from prosecuting this case,” the justices wrote in their majority opinion.

A 7-page dissenting opinion by Justice William W. Hood III, joined by Justices Richard L. Gabriel and Melissa Hart, noted the Lake County court “carefully outlined a host of troubling facts” and concluded Kent’s right to a fair trial was in jeopardy, choosing to disqualify District Attorney Brown’s office. “In doing so, it exercised the substantial discretion we purport to afford the court closest to the facts. Because I see no abuse of that substantial discretion here, I respectfully dissent,” Hood wrote in the opinion, noting that he does not “mean to disparage Brown or defend Kent, let alone condone any of Kent’s allegedly intemperate behavior.”

In an email about the Colorado Supreme Court decision, Brown said, “We are gratified that the court upheld the important principle that the elected prosecutor should represent their district whenever justice can be served by maintaining this responsibility in local hands. Local prosecutors know the community and understand the local crime enforcement needs. Additionally, the locally tied prosecutor is familiar with witnesses and parties to cases, allowing Coloradans the best equipped representatives in criminal cases.”

Brown himself is leaving office as the 5th Judicial District Attorney on Jan. 12, facing term limits after being elected to the position in 2012. He is being replaced by his assistant district attorney, Heidi McCollum.

Out of business, but still in office

Earlier in December, Kent voluntarily signed an order with DORA and the Office of Funeral Home and Crematory Registration that requires him to permanently exit the funeral home and cremation business in Colorado. Kent had previously owned and operated six funeral homes and crematories in Leadville, Gypsum, Silverthorne, Idaho Springs, Buena Vista and Fairplay.

“Neither he nor anyone acting on his behalf or at his direction, either directly or indirectly, shall provide or otherwise be involved with providing funeral goods or services or cremations in the state of Colorado,” the order states.

Operations at Kent’s funeral homes in Leadville and Gypsum were suspended Oct. 13, after a search warrant was executed by the Lake and Eagle sheriff’s departments, finding unsanitary and possibly unlawful conditions at the funeral home in Leadville. According to the suspension order, those conditions included:

  • Used body bags, medical gloves, and surgical equipment with dried bodily fluid on them piled on the floor;
  • Dried bodily fluids on the metal preparation table and floor;
  • Bodily fluids leaking out of a body bag containing a decedent that was not refrigerated;
  • Numerous bags of unlabeled cremains;
  • A container of animal remains leaking fluids
  • Several bodies in refrigeration wrapped in sheets or blankets without identifying tags or paperwork;
  • A small, unmarked casket containing a stillborn infant that Kent told police had been “abandoned”;
  • And paperwork scattered several feet deep on the floor of what appeared to be the business office.

The suspension order also noted complaints by David Roemer and Elizabeth Witthoeft, a Leadville couple who hired Kent’s funeral home to cremate their stillborn son after his birth in December 2019. The couple has filed a civil lawsuit against Kent’s funeral homes, which is pending in Eagle County District Court. It alleges the couple received unlabeled cremains for their infant that were co-mingled with at least one other person and unaccompanied by any paperwork.

According to the lawsuit, when a funeral home employee delivered the cremains to Roemer and Witthoeft on Dec. 23, 2019, the ashes were in excess of what would be expected for an infant and too large to fit into an infant urn the couple purchased for their son. When the couple asked if the ashes were their son’s and asked for paperwork, the funeral home allegedly told them they would “need to take their word for it.”

That cremation was reportedly done at the Gypsum funeral home, and a later analysis of the infant’s ashes found they also contained bone fragments from a larger adult, surgical materials, jewelry and other metals, according to the lawsuit and the state’s suspension order.

According to the October suspension order against Kent’s two funeral homes, “reasonable grounds exist to believe, and the director so finds, that the public health, safety or welfare imperatively requires emergency action and/or the respondent is guilty of multiple deliberate and willful violations” of state mortuary codes.

Kent, who denied the allegations as part of the order to permanently bar him from the funeral home and cremation business in Colorado, could not be reached for comment. A phone call to his Lake County office line received a recording that his mailbox was full and could not accept messages. Two attorneys representing him also did not respond to requests for comment.

Brown said the Lake County Sheriff’s Office has an open investigation against Kent and the Bailey-Kent Funeral Home in Leadville regarding potential violations of state mortuary codes.

“That investigation is the subject of a pending civil case in which the sheriff’s office has been restrained from completing its investigation,” Brown wrote in an email. “The court deferred significant action on the restraint lifting until resolution of the special prosecutor issue. We continue to seek a court to resolve all issues that restrain the completion of the investigation.”

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