Two women who own Sunset Mesa Funeral Home in Montrose were arrested Tuesday for selling body parts or entire bodies without consent of the family of the deceased, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Colorado.
At least two La Plata County residents won lawsuits against Sunset Mesa Funeral Home last year alleging Megan Hess, 43, and her 66-year-old mother, Shirley Koch, harvested and sold their family members’ bodies without their consent.
Hess and Koch were arrested this week on a federal grand jury indictment for six counts of mail fraud and three counts of illegal transportation of hazardous materials, according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
The remains belonging to at least 38 individuals have been identified by investigators through DNA analysis all over the country, U.S. Attorney Jason Dunn said in a conference call for news organizations. Hess and Koch allegedly ran the operation from 2010 to 2018, according to court documents.
A Montrose County judge awarded Durango resident Julee Glynn, a victim of Hess and Koch, $468,010 for the emotional and physical pain she suffered as a result of receiving a bag of cement from Sunset Mesa Funeral Home that the owners said were the cremated remains of her brother.
La Plata County resident Terri Thorsby received a default judgment in her lawsuit that found Sunset Mesa Funeral Home liable for dismembering her mother and selling the body parts without her knowledge or consent. No monetary rewards have been ordered in the case as of Tuesday, said Thorsby’s lawyer, Chris Cowan.
The schemeFederal prosecutors allege Hess and Koch operated both a funeral home and a human remains donor service that made its money “harvesting and marketing for sale purportedly donated human remains, such as heads, torsos, arms, legs or entire human bodies, to customers who used the remains for scientific, medical or educational purposes,” according to the indictment.
The indictment alleges that Hess and Koch offered cremation services to families but instead harvested bodies without family consent. When people asked for cremated remains of their deceased family members, Hess and Koch provided material that investigators found to be from a mix of human and non-human sources.
“In many instances, a decedent’s entire body was sold through Donor Services,” according to the indictment. “Nevertheless, the families were charged, and paid typically $1,000 or more, for a cremation that never occurred.”
Hess allegedly forged family signatures on donor authorization documents, and many of the purchasers of bodies or body parts did not know the remains were sent without consent of the deceased’s family, court documents show.
“To a large extent, we consider many of the purchasers victims, too,” Dunn said in a news conference call.
Hess and Koch also shipped human remains that tested positive for infectious diseases on commercial air flights, violating federal laws for proper delivery of hazardous biological material, according to the indictment. They sent heads, legs and a spine of individuals known to be infected with Hepatitis C on United and American Airlines flights, court documents show.
“The defendants are charged with committing a blatant fraud on many, many victims. This betrays a fundamental trust during one of the worst times in a person’s life – having to make arrangements for a deceased loved one,” U.S. Attorney Jason Dunn wrote in a news release. “It is hard to imagine the pain and worry of those who used Sunset Mesa and not knowing what happened to their loved ones’ remains.”
Hess and Koch if convicted face up to 20 years in prison for mail fraud and up to five years in prison for transportation of hazardous materials. Each count also carries a possible fine of up to $250,000, and federal prosecutors are seeking forfeiture of all money received through fraud schemes, two Montrose properties and a 2011 GMC Yukon.