Sunset Mesa Funeral Home Operators Arrested For Illegal Body Part Scheme
Defendants also charged with illegally shipping diseased body parts against Department of Transportation requirements regarding hazardous materials
DENVER – United States Attorney Jason R. Dunn today announced that the operators of Sunset Mesa Funeral Home in Montrose, Colorado, were arrested for illegally selling body parts or entire bodies without the consent of the family of the deceased. The two operators, Megan Hess, age 43, and her mother, Shirley Koch, age 66, appeared virtually before a U.S. Magistrate Judge in Grand Junction, where they were advised of their rights and the charges pending against them. The Denver Field Office of the FBI and the Department of Transportation Office of the Inspector General joined in today’s announcement.
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 meet with families seeking cremation services, and would offer to cremate the decedents’ bodies and provide the remains back to the families. SMFD would charge $1,000 or more for cremations, but many never occurred.
In 2009, Hess also created a nonprofit called Sunset Mesa Funeral Foundation, d/b/a Donor Services, a body broker service operated out of the same location as SMFD.
In at least dozens of 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. 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. Hess and Koch also delivered cremains to families with the representation that the cremains were that of the deceased when, frequently, that was not the case.
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 through the mail or on commercial air flights in violation of Department of Transportation regulations regarding the transportation of hazardous materials.
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.
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 5 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 victim. 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,” said U.S. Attorney Jason Dunn. “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.”
“I also want to recognize the hard work of the men and women of the FBI who conducted this investigation,” added U.S. Attorney Dunn. “This was an extremely complex case and would not have resulted in charges absent their dogged work.”
“Let today’s actions serve notice to those who would commit such self-serving acts of callous greed, we will diligently and tirelessly work to bring you to justice,” said FBI Denver Assistant Special Agent in Charge Dameon Hutto.
“Today’s indictment stemming from the illegal transportation of hazardous materials is a clear signal that such illegal acts will not be tolerated,” stated Lisa Glazzy, Acting Regional Special Agent-in-Charge, U.S. Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General (DOT-OIG). “Working with our law enforcement and prosecutorial colleagues, we will continue to protect the public’s safety from those who would seek to circumvent DOT-related laws and regulations.”
This case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeremy Chaffin from the U.S. Attorneys Grand Junction Office and Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Neff in the Denver office.
The information provided today, as well as the information contained in the indictment, are allegations, and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.