Abuse of a corpse joint trial sees opening arguments, witness testimony

Defense attorney argues police 'didn't bother to get the full story'

Shannon, left, and Staci Kent of Leadville were arrested on charges related to their funeral home operations. Both individuals have outstanding cases that are being tried in court across the region.
Silverthorne Police Department/Courtesy photos

The joint trial involving former funeral home owners Shannon and Staci Kent made it to witness testimony yesterday after opening statements and a day and a half of jury selection. 

Prosecutors laid out their goal of proving the Kents failed in their roles as funeral home operators, while the joint defense team tried to show the Kents were in a complicated situation — caught in the crossfire of the COVID-19 pandemic and selling their business.

“It’s not a usual case,” Deputy District Attorney and lead prosecutor Joe Kirwan said to the courtroom Wednesday, June 1.

The Kents each face two felonies — one count of tampering with a body and one count of abuse of a corpse — stemming from a series of events that unfolded between Aug. 2020, and Feb. 2021.

According to Staci Kent’s attorney Stacey Shobe, police never got the full story, and the Kents faced an “unprecedented time with unprecedented challenges” due to the pandemic.

“They didn’t bother to get the whole story,” Shobe said to jurors during Staci Kent’s opening statement. “But you deserve to hear that story.”

On July 30, 2020, 42-year-old Nigerian trucker Victor Akubuo died in a motor vehicle accident in Park County. The Kents’ funeral home took responsibility for his body in August, prosecutor Aven Rose said.

“He just sat there,” she said. “Victor Akubuo was entrusted to Shannon and Staci Kent’s care. He was left unattended for months.”

Between August and February, the body remained at the Kents’ Silverthorne funeral home. The Kents attempted to transport the body to Akubuo’s family in Nigeria, but conversations with the Nigerian consulate hit hurdles due to the pandemic and difficulties shipping the body, Shobe said.

At the same time, the defense said the Kents were attempting to transfer their lease to Colorado Funeral Homes through T.J. Garcia, as well as their funeral home business. Staci Kent had at one point indicated she and Shannon Kent might sell their business and move, according to Peach Valley Properties owner Marylin Hogan, who owned the office space leased by the Kents.

Shobe said as part of the sale, Garcia would take over the business and its one outstanding case — that of Akubuo.

Shobe said the Kents almost reached a final deal with Garcia to sell their business, but he “low-balled” them at half of what they originally agreed, forcing the Kents to back out.

Garcia did reach an agreement, however, with property owners to lease the office space the Kents were using. Peach Valley Properties owners Marc and Marilyn Hogan testified to that, although a signed lease was not part of evidence. Marylin Hogan said the last page of the lease with Garcia’s signature was not included in the evidence provided, but she personally had a signed and notarized copy.

Marylin Hogan added Peach Valley Properties was not directly involved in the sale.

“We’re a small company,” Marc Hogan said. “If people pay their rent, we don’t bother them.”

By 2021, Garcia had control of the office space and the website, Shobe said. His lease began Feb. 1, according to Marylin Hogan. Both Hogans testified to the office space continuing to look like a funeral home after Garcia held the lease and his intentions to continue operating as a funeral home.

“I don’t believe it changed much,” Marc Hogan said. Marylin Hogan said the Kents left furniture, including one casket that she thought was purely for display purposes.

Marylin Hogan said police never asked her to show documentation of a lease.

Marc Hogan said Garcia alerted him to the presence of a body. After learning about the body, Marc Hogan asked Shannon Kent to remove the body as soon as possible, but never specified a deadline to do so.

When police arrived to investigate in February, Rose said they found mold, unknown fluids and a mummified hand.

“The officers were overwhelmed by the smell,” Rose said.

In the defense’s opening statement, Shobe said the Kents did not do the embalming since they contracted a third party to do so. She also said a future witness would testify to the natural decomposition of an embalmed body.

The foundation of the trial began Tuesday with jury selection. A pool of more than 200 potential jurors was whittled down to 13 and one alternate through a modified civil process, Judge Terry Ruckriegle said, clearing a challenge faced by a previous failed jury trial.

The modified process allowed the court to expedite the jury selection process, Ruckriegle said.

Surveying the room, Ruckriegle said, in the old Clear Creek courthouse “we couldn’t even get this many people in the whole building, let alone the courtroom.”

The pool of jurors arrived Tuesday and filled out a paper questionnaire. From that, obvious conflicts were removed, and the pool shrunk to under 100 at the start of the day Wednesday. From there, 31 potential jurors were selected and questioned openly and in turn by all three councils.

Councils asked if jurors would be comfortable viewing images of a dead body and what the jury’s role was in evaluating a case.

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