Colorado Funeral Home Owner Pleads Guilty to Stealing Body Parts
Sunset Mesa Funeral Foundation
A funeral home operator in Montrose, Colorado, who was accused of illegally stealing and shipping body parts has pleaded guilty to mail fraud on Tuesday. Megan Hess, 45, and her mother, Shirley Koch, had run a nonprofit organization called Sunset Mesa Funeral Foundation specializing in donor services and funeral arrangements.
Sunset Mesa Funeral Foundation (SMFD) was a “body-broker service.” Typically, this is a legal business in which an individual may sell body parts to third parties for research and training (not transplants) and is not regulated by federal law.
However, a grand jury indictment found that between 2010 and 2018, the mother-daughter-duo of Hess and Koch stole body parts from the grieving loved ones of at least a dozen families.
In some cases, Hess and Koch gave fake ashes to family members after charging $1,000 or more for the “cremation” process, in which Hess would harvest heads, spines, arms and legs or whole bodies to sell to third parties without the permission of grieving family members---while forging donor consent forms---according to federal investigators.
Some families had agreed to donate small samples (such as tumors) to testing and research, but Hess and Koch would then “exceed the authorization they obtained” and “remains would be sold for purposes not contemplated by the families; and body parts beyond those which were authorized, if not entire bodies, would be sold,” according to an indictment filed in 2020.
A former employee of SMFD told Reuters in 2018 that Koch allegedly pulled teeth from corpses to obtain their gold fillings and crowns and spent the money on a family vacation to Disneyland.
2 July 2022, 18:38 GMT
Hess and Koch kept advertised cremation rates low so that they could increase the supply of bodies that were coming through their doors. The two would also, on occasion, offer free or reduced cremation rates if families agreed to “donate” their loved ones’ remains.
The “ashes” that family members received from SMFD were almost always substituted with the cremains of another person. On one occasion a person was given concrete mix.
"One thing that I heard over and over from the families is it was like a second death," said Colorado State Representative Matt Soper, who hopes to change a state law so that regulators may enter a funeral home without there being a criminal charge.
"It just kind of hits your gut," Soper said. "You can't believe that body brokering, selling body parts, chopping up body parts, giving people concrete, they're not things you hear about in the United States of America."
Authorities discovered that Hess and her mother would even ship body parts that tested positive for infectious diseases such as Hepatitis B and C, as well as HIV, after lying to third parties that the body parts were disease-free. Embalmed cadavers can still pose a risk to those who handle the body if an infectious disease is present.
Originally, Hess and Koch had pleaded not guilty to the charges. After entering a plea deal, Hess will be sentenced from 12 to 15 years in prison. Koch will attend a change of plea hearing on July 12.