Former Lake County coroner, wife found not guilty on all counts
After numerous delays, jury in Clear Creek acquits couple, though legal odyssey isn't over yet
Vail Daily and Summit Daily News
A Clear Creek County jury acquitted former funeral home owners Shannon and Staci Kent on all counts Tuesday in the latest development of proceedings against the couple, which date back to 2019 and span multiple counties.
The Kents, who previously owned six funeral homes in Colorado including Kent Funeral Home in Gypsum, were charged with attempting to tamper with a dead body, a Class 5 felony, and abuse of a corpse, a Class 6 felony in a jury trial that ended with the not-guilty verdict delivered Tuesday.
“While we hoped for a different outcome today, we respect the jury’s decision in this case,” Assistant District Attorney for the 5th Judicial District Joe Kirwan said in a press release.
The charges were brought in February 2021 after law enforcement officials found “a deceased person in a coffin” at the location of the former Kent-Bailey Funeral Home in Silverthorne, which was owned by Shannon Kent until he had to surrender his license to operate a funeral home in December 2020.
The body belonged to Victor Akubuo, a 42-year-old Nigerian immigrant and truck driver from California, who died in a car accident in Park County on July 30, 2020. The Park County Coroner provided Akubuo’s only next-of-kin in the United States, Michael Ofoegbu, with a list of nearby funeral homes. Ofoegbu selected the Bailey Kent Funeral Home in Silverthorne on Aug. 11.
Support Local Journalism
The Kents left Akubuo’s body at the Silverthorne location until February 2021 when local officials became aware of the remains, according to a press release from the 5th Judicial District Attorney’s Office. Shannon Kent, the former Lake County Coroner, and his wife Staci, were arrested in Leadville on Feb. 18, 2021, by the Silverthorne Police Department.
Ultimately, the case was set out for a jury trial to be held in Clear Creek County instead of Summit County where the alleged crime took place.
Tuesday’s verdict comes after two mistrials, the first in December of last year and the second in March.
“It’s nice to know the justice system prevailed,” Shannon Kent said after hearing the verdict. “At the same time we understand Mr. Ofoegbu and Mr. Akubuo’s family is going through a very difficult time, so we are sympathetic to them.”
Akubuo’s body was stored in the Kents’ funeral home in a casket, the exact place embalmer Mark McGraw said he would expect an embalmed body to lie. Anthony Garcia reported the body abandoned after he took over the lease for the property.
“A far cry from abandonment,” Shannon Kent’s attorney John Scott argued.
“No one did any meaningful investigation in this case,” Scott added.
The defense routinely asked witnesses if they had been interviewed by Silverthorne Police or the District Attorney’s investigators as part of any investigation.
Thea Reiff said the Kents never had an alternative course of action. She added that had Garcia not called the District Attorney’s Office with his “false accusation,” the body still would have traveled the same path to Nigeria.
Decay, she added, was inevitable, and the Kents never tampered with the body, as supported by Silverthorne Detective Richard Watson’s analysis.
McGraw embalmed Akubuo’s body in August. He knew the body would be shipped to family in Nigeria and expected the body to sit for a couple months, so he utilized a higher index embalming fluid and additional moisturizers. But McGraw had no idea what the exact timeline would be, and, ultimately, the body would not reach Nigeria until September 2021.
Ofoegbu expressed the family’s wish to have Akubuo’s body returned home to Nigeria. The Kents took responsibility for delivering Akubuo’s body to Nigeria in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Kents contacted the Nigerian consulate and attempted to return the body but faced opposition from pandemic-era travel restrictions.
On Sep. 7, Ofoegbu heard from the Kents for the last time until February.
“They disappeared on me,” he told the courtroom.
The body was not returned to Nigeria by Dec. 1, 2020, when Shannon Kent lost his license to operate a funeral home. The Kents were in the process of exiting the funeral home industry in the late fall and winter of 2021. Per a Department of Regulatory Agencies order, Shannon Kent could not operate in any capacity as a funeral home operator.
With the body still in their Silverthorne funeral home, the Kents attempted to sell their lease and business to Anthony “TJ” Garcia of Colorado Funeral Homes. Garcia was made aware of the body during business discussions with the Kents.
While Garcia took over the office lease Feb. 1, business negotiations between both parties fell through in the first weeks of February 2021. Garcia no longer wished to purchase the Kents’ business — rather he wished to open his own funeral home business in the office space. He notified the Kents in early February via email.
He gave the Kents an ultimatum on Feb. 11 to remove the body of Akubuo by Feb. 18. If they did not, then he would consider it abandoned.
The Kents attempted to get Michael Greenwood of Greenwood and Myers Mortuary in Boulder to take charge of the body. They texted him Feb. 12.
Despite Garcia’s Feb. 18 deadline, he notified District Attorney Heidi McCollum the next day, Feb. 12, to say he believed there was an abandoned body in the office space. He told the courtroom he needed the body gone for the sake of his business.
The Silverthorne Police Department was notified of a possibly abandoned body on Feb. 13. Investigators from the police department arrived at the funeral home Feb. 16 to look for human remains.
They opened the casket in the viewing room and described the smell as “musty” and “decayed.” The right hand was shriveled, while the left was “plump” and waxy. His body was in an industry standard unionall, and mold and unknown fluid had collected in the legs of the plastic body suit.
On that day, Staci Kent texted deputy coroner Amber Flenniken, first to ask for the body of Akubuo, then saying, TJ turned us in to (Department of Regulatory Agency) and the (District Attorney).”
Greenwood arrived at the funeral home Feb. 16 after the Kents called him to collect the body, but it had already been returned to the Park County Coroner’s Office for identification.
The investigating coroner, Genevieve Ditlevson, considered the body improperly embalmed. She said it lacked firmness indicative of proper embalming fluid. Her finger went through to the bone when she prodded Akubuo’s leg.
After contacting Ofoegbu in February and getting familial permission, Greenwood took charge of Akubuo’s body. After many attempts to ship the body and being turned down by airlines, Greenwood at last shipped Akubuo home to Nigeria in September 2021.
According the verdict, the prosecutor’s office failed to prove the standards of the two charges brought against the Kents beyond a reasonable doubt.
Tampering with a deceased human body requires that the defendant in Colorado at or about the date and place charged believed that an official proceeding was pending, in progress, or about to be instituted, and acting without legal right or authority, willfully, destroyed, mutilated, concealed, removed, or altered a human body, part of a human body, or human remains, with intent to impair its or their appearance or availability in the official proceedings.
Abuse of a corpse requires that the defendant in Colorado at or about the date and place charged, without statutory or court-ordered authority treated the body or remains of any person in a way that would outrage the normal family sensibilities.
A bit of background
Trouble with the Kents dates back to 2019. The details of the charges brought against them shocked state officials enough to inspire Rep. Dylan Roberts and Sen. Kerry Donovan to co-sponsor a bill expanding regulatory authority to investigate funeral homes based on complaints of misconduct or malpractice.
“This law is a direct response to instances of funeral home malpractice in multiple Western Slope funeral homes, including Kent Funeral Homes in Leadville and Gypsum, and will go into effect in August 2022,” stated a press release issued after the bill was signed into law in March.
Back in 2019, Shannon Kent, then the Lake County Coroner, was indicted by a grand jury that claimed he was allowing his wife, Staci Kent, to perform the duties of deputy coroner without having been sworn into the position. Shannon Kent was removed as coroner and, in September of last year, was found guilty and sentenced to six months of unsupervised probation.
While the grand jury case was ongoing, allegations began to come out regarding the Kents’ private practices in the funeral home business.
In December 2019, a client of the Kents’ funeral home in Leadville contacted the business to arrange for the cremation of a stillborn child, according to a report from the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies.
The client told the state that the Leadville funeral home did not provide written notice that the cremation services would be performed at the Kent Funeral Home in Gypsum and that the cremains themselves were only provided after several calls were placed with the Leadville business.
The report states that the cremains presented to the client was not labeled and did not include accompanying paperwork, which the client requested.
“E.W. (the client) noted the cremains returned to her exceeded the expected weight for a stillborn child and subsequently submitted the cremains that were provided to her for forensic analysis,” the state’s suspension order reads. “Upon analysis, the cremains submitted by E.W. were found to contain recognizable elements of a perinatal human infant, long bone fragments of an older/larger adult, and metal.”
On Oct. 2, 2020, deputies with both the Lake County Sheriff’s Office and the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office executed a search warrant at the Leadville location. At the site, they found human biological waste, used and uncleaned medical and surgery equipment, unrefrigerated human remains and refrigerated remains that did not have identification tags or accompanying paperwork.
On Oct. 13, 2020, the state suspended operations at both the Gypsum operation and Bailey-Kent Funeral home in Leadville.
After further investigation, Shannon Kent signed a voluntary agreement with state regulators on Dec. 1, 2020, that closed all six of the Kents’ funeral homes and mandated that he never again work in the funeral home or cremation business in Colorado.
While the Kents have been acquitted on charges brought against them in relation to the body found at their Silverthorne business, the two still face Lake County charges from the complaint related to the cremated remains of the stillborn child.
Shannon Kent, 46, has been charged with 14 counts, four of which are felonies, relating to official misconduct, abuse of a corpse and “cremation – unlawful acts,” among other things. He pleaded not guilty to all charges and is set for a two-week jury trial beginning Aug. 1. This second trial will also be held in Clear Creek County.
Staci Kent, also 46, faces three misdemeanor charges: abuse of a corpse (a Class 2 misdemeanor) and two misdemeanor counts of “cremation – unlawful acts,” according to court records. Her next court appearance is set for June 23.