The third day of testimony saw a key witness take the stand. The new owner of the funeral home formerly operated by Shannon and Staci Kent, Anthony “TJ” Garcia, told the court why he contacted the district attorney’s office to say Victor Akubuo’s body had been abandoned.
In the prior day’s proceedings, evidence showed a text from Staci Kent that said, “TJ [Garcia] turned us into (Department of Regulatory Agencies) and the (District Attorney’s Office).”
Other witnesses testified to the decomposing state of Akubuo’s body, and whether it was properly embalmed.
Key witness takes the stand
In the first days of testimony, the defense questioned witnesses about the status of the Kents’ Silverthorne funeral home. The lease was changing names, and the Kents were attempting to sell their funeral home operation to Colorado Funeral Homes and Garcia.
When Garcia took the stand Friday, he said the Kents left the casket with Victor Akubuo’s body and other furniture behind after he took over the office space’s lease in mid-January.
On Jan. 11 he filed for licensure of his funeral home operation and listed the address as the Silverthorne location even though he did not have legal right to occupancy of the physical location until Feb. 1.
He also had access to the Kents’ website by then.
The sale of the Kents’ business to his family’s business broke down on Feb. 1. Garcia said purchasing the Kents’ business didn’t make financial sense for him. He decided instead to take the Kents’ lease in Silverthorne and establish his own funeral home business in its place.
In an email sent to the Kents dated Feb. 11, he said they had until Feb. 18 to collect the casket and furniture. Otherwise, he wrote, he would consider it “abandoned.”
He said he never took responsibility for Akubuo’s final disposition. To do so, he said he would have to speak with Akubuo’s family and make arrangements, and he said the Kents had lost contact.
A file accompanying Akubuo’s body was left at the Silverthorne funeral home. The file contained a phone number and return address for Michael Ofoegbu, Akubuo’s uncle. Garcia showed the file to Silverthorne police, Shannon Kent’s attorney John Scott said citing bodycam footage.
On Feb. 12 — one day after Garcia sent his email to the Kents — Garcia said he called District Attorney Heidi McCollum and said Akubuo’s body had been abandoned. He said he called because he needed to move forward with his own business operations.
“It was hindering our business,” he said.
On Feb. 16, Silverthorne police arrived at the funeral home to investigate.
After police left the scene with the body, Garcia said the Kents texted and called him to say a Michael Greenwood of Greenwood & Myers Mortuary had come to pick up the body.
The Kents were unable to collect the body themselves partially because they had surrendered their license to operate a funeral home.
By then, however, Park County officials had already collected it.
The state of the body
“I had a very serious emotional reaction to seeing him at that time. It was outrage,” Park County Coroner David Kintz said when he saw Akubuo’s body after it was taken from the Silverthorne to Park County.
When the body arrived at the Park County Coroner’s Office, it was identified and inspected.
“My finger went pretty much down to the bone,” Park County Deputy Coroner Genevieve Ditlevson said regarding her inspection of Akubuo’s right thigh.
“In my experience the body was not properly embalmed in the legs,” Ditlevson added.
Prosecution asked Heath Carroll, funeral director at Carroll-Lewellen Funeral and Cremation Services in Longmont, if there was a right way to embalm a person. Carroll responded, “There’s a scientific way to embalm people … but you adjust as you go.”
In the case of Mr. Akubuo’s body, he had been embalmed by a third party, not the Kents themselves. When authorities discovered his body in its unrefrigerated casket, they found leakage, mold and a “musty” smell.
Visually, the body appeared in various stages of decay, she said. Red fluid had leaked over the lower body. White mold had begun to spread over the lower body as part of the decomposition process.
She said the red fluid was unusual. It was likely an embalming dye, she said, but dyes should usually be drained before an embalmer finishes their work.
Ditlevson said she tested for the presence of embalming fluid by prodding the body. She said an embalmed body would be firm. Some parts were still in good condition, like the left hand, and some parts were not, she said.
When she speaking about the right hand, she said, “I do not believe it got the amount of embalming it needed,” she said.
During her testimony, the prosecution displayed images of Akubuo’s body in its casket. The body was dressed in a unionall, a mortuary garment. Sawdust was littered over parts of the body. Only the skin of the hands was visible. The left hand appeared waxy and “plump,” as Ditlevson said, while the right hand appeared slightly shriveled and mummified.
Defense addressed Ditlevson’s experience. She said she had only about 150 hours of experience and worked on about 20 bodies but was the only member of the Park County Coroner’s Office with embalming experience in 2021.
On cross examination, Ditlevson said she did not open the unionall to look for signs of injection of embalming chemicals.
She also said there’s no scientific method for determining how long an embalmed body can be maintained. Refrigeration, she said, could slow the decay of a body after embalming.
Carroll said the main objective of an embalmer is to make sure the body arrives at their final location in the best possible condition. To do so, an embalmer needs to figure out how long it will be until the body reaches its “final disposition” — the time when it is laid to rest.
Akubuo’s final disposition was with family in Nigeria. The Kents had attempted to ship the body to Nigeria during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Shipping internationally, Carroll said, adds some adjustments to an embalmer or funeral home operator’s work. Permits need to be obtained. Approval is needed from foreign consulates. Arrangements need to be made with cargo carriers. A body may also need refrigeration in transit.
The COVID-19 pandemic affected shipping procedures, he said, and every state and country had different regulations during pandemic. He said in about the first 90 days, there were a lot of restrictions. Some airports refused to receive any human remains whatsoever, he said.
Viruses threaten proceedings again
Judge Ruckriegle started the day by excusing one juror who was sick. The day proceeded with 12 jurors.
The juror in this case said they had a fever above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. They took two at-home COVID-19 tests and it returned negative, but the existence of a contagion in the courtroom posed risks.
Before the day began, Reiff raised the concern of other jurors becoming sick, and Scott added some of the jurors were elderly. Both prosecution and defense were open to the idea of recessing for the day and returning Monday.
“I would be uncomfortable with him being double or triple masked and sitting in the jury box,” Kirwan said.
A member of the prosecution team said they were immunocompromised and would be uncomfortable if the trial continued.
But with the weekend on the horizon, Reiff also raised concern that a lot could happen in two days and another juror could become sick.
Witness Silverthrone Sergeant Bryan Siebel already missed his initial appearance Thursday due to bronchitis, the prosecution said. Delaying proceedings could allow him to not miss his turn in the witness order.
Ultimately, Ruckriegle decided to keep the trial going with the one juror absent for the day. He cited a desire to reach the case’s conclusion quickly. A few jurors and attorneys wore masks, and the trial continued.
A key witness’s exposure to COVID-19 in a previous attempt to try the case resulted in a mistrial.