Two years after the FBI raided Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors and Donor Services Inc. in Montrose, federal indictments have been handed down accusing owner Megan Hess and her mother, Shirley Koch, of mail fraud and illegally shipping diseased body parts against Department of Transportation requirements regarding hazardous materials.
Hess and Koch were taken into custody Tuesday morning and appeared at U.S. District Court in Grand Junction for initial advisement.
The indictment accuses the women of taking money for cremation services that were not performed, and of selling body parts without permission or, in cases where families agreed to donations, selling the remains of the deceased beyond what the families had authorized. The USAO alleged the women also gave family members cremains that were not those of the deceased.
Hess and Koch also allegedly shipped bodies and body parts that tested positive for, or which belonged to, people who had died from infectious diseases, after certifying to buyers the remains were disease-free. These shipments were made via mail or commercial flights, in violation of federal regulations for transport of hazardous materials.
If convicted of mail fraud, each of the six counts could bring the women 20 years in prison. If convicted of transporting hazardous materials, the penalty is five years in prison for each of the three counts and each defendant also faces fines of up to $250,000 per count.
“The defendants not only committed blatant fraud on many, many victims, but they betrayed 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, in an announcement issued in lieu of an in-person press conference that was cancelled over COVID-19 precautions. A telephone press conference was underway at 3 p.m.
“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.”
The FBI came to town in February 2018 and conducted searches of the Merchant Drive funeral home and Donor Services Inc., through which Hess obtained human tissue for purported donations. Although the FBI kept the details of its investigation under wraps until today’s indictment, affected family members reported having received substances other than cremains, such as concrete mix; the wrong cremains, as demonstrated by items found in the ashes that were not associated with the deceased and, based on what the FBI told them, that their loved ones’ bodies or body parts were sold without their knowledge.
Hess denies the allegations. The U.S. Attorney’s Office reminds the public she and Koch are innocent until proven guilty.
The case spawned at least six civil suits, two of which secured orders of default. The others are ongoing.
The USAO said the investigation was complex and involved a detailed forensic review of evidence. The USAO intends to later conduct a victim-only meeting to provide additional information and answer victim questions.
The news was met with relief by affected family members. “I’m happy,” said Montrose resident Chris Kraschuk, one of dozens of people suing Sunset Mesa over its alleged handling of his parents’ remains. “It took a long time, but I guess good things take a long time.”
Debra Schum, who said Sunset Mesa sold her friend’s body without permission, also welcomed the news. “It’s been so long that I almost don’t believe it’s real. I am greatly relieved, finally. Finally,” she said.
“I also want to recognize the hard work of the men and women of the FBI who conducted this investigation. This was an extremely complex case and would not have resulted in charges absent their dogged work,” said Dunn.
“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,” said 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 Chaffin from the U.S. Attorneys Grand Junction Office and Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Neff in the Denver office.
This story will be updated with more information.