Kent funeral home case nears verdict as testimony wraps up Monday

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

Witness testimony wrapped up Monday, June 6, in the joint trial of former funeral home owners Shannon and Staci Kent. Prosecution and defense laid their cases to rest, and the jury will return Tuesday to deliberate and reach a verdict.

The Kents each face two felonies, one count of tampering with a body and one count of abuse of a corpse. On July 30, 2020, Victor Akubuo died in a single-vehicle accident on Kenosha Pass. The Kents’ funeral home took responsibility for his body in August. In Feb. 2021, the body was reported abandoned by Anthony “TJ” Garcia of Colorado Funeral Homes, who took ownership of the Kents’ former Silverthorne office space after they attempted to exit the funeral home industry.

Garcia gave the Kents an ultimatum on Feb. 11 to remove the body by Feb. 18, 2021, but a day after he gave the ultimatum he notified the District Attorney to say the body had been abandoned.

Shannon and Staci Kent chose not to testify Monday.

The prosecution’s case reached its emotional climax Friday when Akubuo’s uncle Michael Ofoegbu testified for a somber courtroom. He addressed the court, but in particular he addressed the Kents.

“Where is Staci? That’s one of the reasons I came. I want to look at her,” he said. He wanted to speak to the woman who, in his words, “disappeared.”

Staci Kent raised her hand to identify herself for Ofoegbu, although Judge Terry Ruckriegle considered his question improper.

Ofoegbu resided in California at the time of his nephew’s death. He said Park County Coroners notified him of his nephew’s fatal accident on Kenosha Pass in July 2020 over the phone.

Around that time, he spoke over the phone with Staci Kent to arrange his nephew’s final disposition. He said he chose the Kents because their funeral home was the closest to his nephew’s accident. He asked the Kents to ship the body home to Akubuo’s family in Nigeria.

The Kents told Ofoegbu that shipping the body to Nigeria would be challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, but they would try. As of Feb. 16, he said, the airport in Lagos, Nigeria, was still shutdown since the onset of pandemic restrictions in Nigeria.

Sept. 7 was the last time he spoke with the Staci Kent until after the events of Feb. 16, he said. Staci Kent was his primary contact for the Kents’ funeral home.

“She wasn’t answering phones. She wasn’t answering texts,” Ofoegbu said. Staci “disappeared,” he said. Even Akubuo’s place of work could not reach the Kents, he said.

Breaking the radio silence, Michael Greenwood of Greenwood and Myers Mortuary in Boulder called Ofoegbu Feb. 13 to ask Ofoegbu’s permission to collect the body. Staci Kent called shortly thereafter to tell Ofoegbu that Greenwood was “good.”

Garcia alleged the Kents had lost contact with Ofoegbu when he learned of Akubuo’s body.

His voice quavered at times as he recalled seeing the decomposing body of his nephew. When asked if he saw the body, he hesitated.

“That’s the part I don’t want to remember,” he said. “If I remember what, I saw I don’t eat. It doesn’t let me eat,” he said.

He said he did not see his nephew’s body until it finally arrived in Nigeria in the fall of 2021. When it arrived, he said his family did not believe the body was that of Akubuo. He flew to Nigeria to confirm its identity.

Akubuo’s family in Nigeria had not seen him in about a decade, Ofoegbu noted. They had had not seen Akubuo since he moved to the United States, Ofoegbu said.

Ofoegbu told the court he may pursue civil litigation against the Kents in the future.

The defense brings its witnesses

While the Kents stood by their right to not testify, the defense’s other witnesses countered earlier opinions of Akubuo’s body’s decayed appearance. 

“He was very well preserved,” embalmer Michael Slater said. “Only thing I saw was a little bit of mold on his leg, but that’s to be expected for someone so long deceased.”

Slater worked for Greenwood and Myers Mortuary in February 2021 when it took responsibility for Akubuo’s body.

Previous witnesses, including other embalmers, described the body as in various stages of decay and likely cared for improperly. Slater was the first witness to have viewed the body and describe it as embalmed properly.

Silverthorne Police Sergeant Bryan Siebel gave a different impression. He saw the body the day investigators arrived at the Kents’ funeral home.

“You could still tell who it was by the face, but it was kind of like the walking dead,” he said of Akubuo’s appearance.

As noted by other witnesses, expert embalmer Martha Thayer said decomposition cannot be stopped by embalming, and neither can its timing be calculated.

“People are as unique in death as they are in life,” Thayer said, noting that every body decomposes differently.

Thayer similarly indicated no improper steps had been taken based on photographs of Akubuo’s body, although she never saw the body in-person. He was wearing unionalls and showed signs of facial moisturizing creams. His appearance was consistent with what she’d expect of a decedent as long-dead as Akubuo’s, she said.

The man responsible for Akubuo’s embalming, Michael McGraw, testified to his care of Akubuo. Slater listened to McGraw’s testimony and said she was pleased with the level of care he showed.

McGraw embalmed Akubuo’s body on Aug. 13, 2020, at Encore Funeral and Cremation Services in Denver. At the time, he said he knew Akubuo’s destination was Nigeria.

“Because of the timetable … we do what we call a ‘hot embalming,’” he said. He recited the list of ingredients used in his embalming. Knowing there’d be period of time between embalming and shipment, he used a higher index formaldehyde and a special fluid meant to keep the body hydrated.

Notably, McGraw said he did not know for certain how long it would take for Akubuo’s body to reach Nigeria, but he assumed it would take at least a couple months. Unbeknownst to him, it would ultimately take more than a year.

Even if he knew it would be more than a year until the body made it home to Nigeria, McGraw said he would have done nothing different in the embalming process. Prosecution continued to ask witnesses if refrigeration would allow a body to be stored for a greater period of time.

“The embalming process allows the body to not be refrigerated,” he said. That said, he told prosecutors there would be nothing wrong with a funeral home refrigerating a body, although. Thayer later said refrigeration could increase mold growth by increasing humidity and moisture levels in the air.

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