Abuse of corpse trial enters second day of witness testimony; law enforcement takes the stand

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 second day of witness testimony in the joint trial of former funeral owners Shannon and Staci Kent saw four new witness take the stand.

Many testified to the state of Victor Akubuo’s body. Akubuo was a Nigerian trucker who died in a vehicular accident on July 30, 2020 in Park County. Witnesses spoke about the journey it took from the scene of the accident to the funeral home to Park County and finally to family in Nigeria.

The Kents each face two felonies — one count of tampering with a body and one count of abuse of a corpse — the latter of which requires prosecutors to prove the Kents defiled a corpse enough to “outrage normal family sensibilities.”

Prosecution continued to highlight the sensory details of the scene with each witness who viewed the body, while the defense honed in on the order of events and who had responsibility for the body at the time of the investigation.

Silverthorne Detective Richard Watson answered questions related to his department’s investigation into the matter.

Watson said he first became involved on Feb. 16, the day Silverthorne Police Department responded to a call from District Attorney’s Office. The office told Silverthorne police there may be an abandoned body at the Kent’s former funeral home in Silverthorne.

The Kent’s had stopped operating that funeral home in late 2021 and began transitioning it to Colorado Funeral Homes and TJ Garcia, the defense said.

Staci Kent’s attorney Thea Reiff asked if he ever saw an email from Garcia to the Kents, sent Feb. 11, that said they had until Feb. 18 to remove the body. Watson said he never saw the email and only heard of it after his investigation ended. Knowledge of the email could have affected his investigation, he said, but he was not certain.

Reiff asked Watson to confirm Garcia reached out to law enforcement and the district attorney on Feb. 13 to say there was an abandoned body. Watson said he thought so.

Reiff also asked Watson if he would be surprised to learn that Garcia had registered his funeral home with the Department of Regulatory Agencies (DORA) on Jan. 11, 2021.

Watson responded by saying, “I had no reason to believe he committed any crimes.”

On the day Silverthorne police arrived at the scene, Watson said he went with Silverthorne evidence technician James Dye, Silverthorne Sgt. Bryan Siebel and a Silverthorne patrolman. Watson said Dye entered the funeral home first.

Dye testified to his actions that day and confirmed he photographed the location, office space and body in the casket. He observed mold on the body and the skin seemed stretched across the bones, he said.

After documenting the scene, Watson said the other members of the Silverthorne Police Department followed him.

He said Siebel opened the casket containing the body.

Dye called the smell released from the casket as “mustard-like” and “sour,” while Watson called it a “musty” and “earthen” and “sweet” smell.

Former Summit County Chief Deputy Coroner Amber Flenniken, who inspected the body at the funeral home that day, described the smell as “an earthy smell of musty decay.”

The various stages of decomposition present in the body, she said, could be expected. Embalming a body does not stop decomposition, she testified, and embalmed bodies do not normally need refrigeration.

On cross examination, Staci Kent’s attorney Stacey Shobe asked if Flenniken was ever interviewed by law enforcement or the district attorney after that day. Flenniken said she was not.

Flenniken also said she received text messages from Staci Kent after 2 p.m. while at the scene.

“Can you call me please, it’s urgent,” Staci Kent texted.

Flenniken responded by texting she was on a scene and couldn’t answer. She said the Park County coroner took possession of the body.

“When did they bring the body?” Staci Kent then texted, followed by, “TJ [Garcia] turned us into (Department of Regulatory Agencies) and the (District Attorney’s Office).”

The Department of Regulatory Agencies manages licensure for many industries, including funeral home operations.

After viewing the scene, Watson said it was still unclear if any crime had been committed. All he said he knew at the time was a body had been abandoned by the previous owners, the Kents. A case was opened nonetheless, he testified, to track the situation.

Watson said TJ Garcia gave Sieble a folder of documents Feb. 16. Included in that folder was certification the body was embalmed, but the document did not include a date. The folder also had an application for a certified death certificate signed by Shannon Kent Aug. 29, 2020 and a document showing Akubuo’s final disposition. The latter document signified the Kent funeral home took responsibility for the body with the goal of returning it to Nigeria.

Watson said no one from Akubuo’s family reached out to him prior to his investigation, and when they did get in touch, none expressed outrage at the treatment of Akubuo’s body.

Following investigation, he said, no texts had been deleted by the Kents and no attempts were made to hide information. Neither did he find any attempts to alter the remains of Akubuo’s body after it had been set in its casket, he testified.

Watson did clarify, however, his duty did not involve investigating charges related to abuse of a corpse.

He also confirmed the body of Victor Akubuo would still not be accepted into Nigeria as of mid-February.

Watson said he never looked at leases as part of his investigation, saying that was more of a civil matter. Leases were a key part of yesterday’s testimony from Marilyn and Marc Hogan, as defense attempted to show the Kents were not in full control of the funeral home location.

For similar reasons, he said he did not consider it relevant to interview the Hogans during the investigation.

Contagion muddles case again

Siebel was meant to testify yesterday, but District Attorney’s prosecutors said he had bronchitis. He should be better by sometime next week, prosecutor Aven Rose said.

Prosecution proposed the possibility of Siebel testifying virtually, but Reiff said she did not want to lose her party’s Sixth Amendment right to confrontation.

“COVID has changed things,” Judge Terry Ruckriegle said. “Nobody wants a contagious person in the courtroom.”

Shannon Kent’s attorney John Scott said Colorado precedent allows for virtual testimony during pretrial proceedings, but specifies it does not necessarily apply to trial proceedings.

A previous attempt to bring the case to trial stalled when a key witness was exposed to COVID-19 and the judge declared a mistrial.

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