MONTROSE, Colo. (KKCO/KJCT/Gray News) - The operators of a funeral home in Colorado were arrested for illegally selling body parts or entire bodies without the consent of the family of the deceased.
U.S. Attorney Jason R. Dunn announced Tuesday that Megan Hess and her mother, Shirley Koch, the operators of Sunset Mesa Funeral Home in Montrose, Colorado, were arrested, KKCO and its sister station, KJCT, report.
The two appeared virtually before a U.S. magistrate judge in Grand Junction, where they were advised of their rights and the charges pending against them.
According to a recently unsealed grand jury indictment, from 2010 through 2018, Hess and Koch operated Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors (SMFD), which purported to provide burial and cremation services.
Hess, and at times, Koch, would allegedly meet with families seeking cremation services and offer to cremate the decedents’ bodies and provide the remains back to the families. Investigators say SMFD would charge $1,000 or more for cremations, but many never occurred.
Investigators say in at least a dozen instances, Hess and Koch did not follow family wishes, and neither discussed nor obtained authorization for Donor Services to transfer decedents’ bodies or body parts to third parties.
Investigators also allege in the few instances where families agreed to donation, Hess and Koch sold the remains of those decedents beyond what was authorized by the family, which was often limited to small tissue samples, tumors or portions of skin.
Investigators go on to say Hess and Koch delivered cremains to families with the representation that the cremains were that of the deceased when, frequently, that was not the case.
Dunn says Hess and Koch would also ship bodies and body parts that tested positive for, or belonging to people who had died from, infectious diseases, including Hepatitis B and C and HIV, after certifying to buyers that the remains were disease free.
These shipments would be sent through the mail or on commercial air flights in violation of Department of Transportation regulations regarding the transportation of hazardous materials.
Dunn says this investigation was complex and involved a detailed forensic review of evidence. At a later date, the U.S. Attorney’s Office will be conducting a victim-only meeting to provide additional information and answer victim questions.
Dunn says both defendants have been charged with six counts of mail fraud and three counts of illegal transportation of hazardous materials.
If convicted of mail fraud, each defendant faces up to 20 years in federal prison, per count. If convicted of transportation of hazardous materials, each defendant faces up to five years in federal prison, per count. They each also face up to a $250,000 fine, per count.
“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,” Dunn said. “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.”
This case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeremy Chaffin from the U.S. Attorney’s Grand Junction Office and Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Neff in the Denver office.
Hess and Koch have both pleaded not guilty and were not taken into custody after their court appearance March 17.
So far, a new court date for the two women has not been set.