Hess COVID test sends federal officers into quarantine

Megan Hess in 2015.

Federal officers and at least two Western Slope officers had to self-quarantine after arresting former Montrose mortuary owner Megan Hess on her indictment March 17.

Hess and her mother, Shirley Koch, were federally indicted on charges of mail fraud and illegally shipping hazardous materials, associated with the alleged sale of bodies and body parts without the permission of next of kin.

They deny the charges and associated allegations.

“While I am not authorized to discuss the indictment in federal court, I look forward to representing Ms. Hess in this matter,” attorney Dan Shaffer, one of two who was appointed to represent Hess, said Friday.

Koch’s attorney Stephen Laiche declined comment.

According to U.S. Magistrate Gordon P. Gallagher’s March 19 order, Hess — who, along with Koch, is free on a $100,000 unsecured bond — was displaying symptoms known to be associated with COVID-19.

“During the arrest process, Defendant Hess was necessarily in close and physical contact and proximity with numerous law enforcement officers, including, but not limited to, two deputy United States Marshals, one FBI special agent and two or more local law enforcement officers from the Western Slope,” Gallagher said. He ordered an immediate COVID-19 test and told the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to provide the result as soon as it was available.

This was completed, Gallagher’s order states. The result is not publicly available because it is a health matter; however, the order concerning the test is a public document.

Because the officers came into contact with Hess when she might have had the virus, they had to self-quarantine, which pulled them off-duty and away from their families, the magistrate said. He had ordered an immediate result, so that the affected officers could know either way.

Hess formerly operated Sunset Mesa Funeral Foundation, which did business as Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors and Donor Services Inc.

Donor Services was described as obtaining human remains for purposes such as research, however, Hess and Koch allegedly ran a scheme through which they sold the bodies, while representing to decedents’ survivors they had been donated and/or cremated.

The women were indicted roughly two years after the FBI raided Sunset Mesa in February of 2018.

They are accused of misrepresenting their services in order to maintain a steady supply of bodies for sale to research, educational and medical markets.

The indictment alleges the women either did not obtain permission, or had permission only for a small donation of tissue. The FBI alleged finding several forged signatures on permission forms and that in “hundreds” of other instances, the remains were sold without a form at all.

Hess and Koch are also accused of shipping by air the remains of three people who were positive for infectious diseases, and of either altering documents to represent the bodies as being disease-free, or not including such documentation.

People who used Sunset Mesa in making arrangements for their deceased friends and family have also alleged in lawsuits that they received incorrect cremains (based on items found in the ashes that were not associated with the deceased), or concrete mix instead of ashes. Several people also reported having been contacted by the FBI and learning that their loved ones allegedly had been harvested for body parts, not cremated.

Hess and Koch were initially slated for an April 20 trial, however, their attorneys secured a continuance until early November.

Hess said through her attorneys that she needs more time to prepare a defense, in light of the complexity of the case, which entails more than 500,000 pages of documents; about 30 substantively charged acts and more than 100 acts the government says are relevant to the indictment.

Preparation may require locating witnesses that have moved from the area, trying to obtain documents from dismantled businesses, consultation with experts and extensive travel for investigatory work.

At minimum, Hess will need six months to adequately prepare, Shaffer wrote in the motion for continuance, which federal prosecutors did not oppose.

“It is not inconceivable that more time will be necessary given the scope of this case,” Shaffer wrote.

Koch’s attorneys filed a similar motion, stating the April 20 trial date doesn’t give enough time for effective preparation.

“Given the number of searches at issue and the agencies involved, counsel will require considerable time to analyze potential Fourth Amendment issues,” Laiche wrote.

The U.S. District Court on March 20 granted the motions.

Its order on Hess’ motion said the alleged actions span about eight years and involve multiple relevant acts, as well as voluminous records.

“The court finds that failure to grant such a continuance would make it impossible for the defense to proceed and would provide inadequate preparation time …” the order states.

The parties were directed to schedule a phone conference to start the process that will ensure appropriate resources are brought to bear, so that the case will not be unduly delayed.

An estimated month-long trial is now set to start on Nov. 2 at the federal courthouse in Grand Junction.

Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.

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