Nine people suing a Montrose funeral home foundation and related parties have amended their complaint to add another funeral-business operator.
Lead plaintiff Terri Thorsby and the other eight alleged in a June 18 complaint that David Haisman of Four Corners Cremation and Burial Society participated in a conspiracy with Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors here to fraudulently acquire and illegally traffic bodies and body parts.
Haisman in an email confirmed he is aware of the suit and said he does not yet have an attorney. A phone message left for him Wednesday was not returned by deadline.
Thorsby’s suit said she had authorized Haisman through his former Cortez-area cremation society to take her mother’s body to Sunset Mesa for cremation.
On Nov. 15, 2018, the FBI informed Thorsby her mother’s head, pelvis, arms, right lower leg, left knee had been harvested, even though she hadn’t given permission or known about it.
News stories about Sunset Mesa’s alleged “body brokering” also led her to suspect her father had been similarly treated, the complaint says.
Thorsby initially filed suit against Sunset Mesa Funeral Foundation, which did business as Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors and Donor Services Inc. in Montrose; owner Megan Hess and her parents, Alan and Shirley Koch.
Since the first complaint was filed, Chris Kraschuk, James Workman, Larry Bedard, Patrick Bedard, Lisa Beresford, Lee Bedard, Cheryl Roberts Lee and Terry Miles joined the suit, which did not at the time name Haisman or Four Corners Cremation and Burial Society.
At the time of the initial complaint, the society’s Colorado business registration address was on Merchant Drive in Montrose — the same address where Sunset Mesa once operated. (The society is not the same entity as a Cortez funeral home that also has Four Corners in its name.)
Four Corners Cremation and Burial Society was closed as of January and its state license has expired. No discipline or board actions are on file against its credential. (See Jan. 10 Montrose Daily Press.)
A Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies spokesman said at the time that an administrative investigation pertaining to Four Corners Cremation and Burial Society was taking place, but further details were not available for an ongoing matter. As of May, there was “no update to report.”
The new Thorsby complaint alleges Hess, the Kochs, the foundation, Haisman and the cremation society “conspired to defraud plaintiffs and set up a system by which they could entice plaintiffs to use Hess and Sunset Mesa to cremate their departed and then take the remains and give them to Donor Services without consent or authorization for the defendants’ own pecuniary gain.”
The defendants’ conduct was extreme, outrageous, reckless and caused severe distress to the plaintiffs who had entrusted deceased family members to Sunset Mesa, the suit says, accusing the parties of taking advantage of grief for monetary gain.
The group also lodged a fraud complaint against Hess, Haisman and the foundation.
“Sunset Mesa, Haisman and Hess made representation to Four Corners (cremation society) and/or plaintiffs that concealed material facts about the handling … of remains,” attorney Chris Cowan wrote.
Although the parties represented cremation would be performed according to the law, those representations were false, and the defendants knew it, the plaintiffs allege; instead the “underlying intent” was to illegally harvest body parts and organs without consent.
Because of Hess, Sunset Mesa and Haisman’s alleged failure to disclose the truth, the plaintiffs incurred damages and losses, both monetary and emotional, Cowan said, alleging “malice or like motives.”
The nine have also sued Sunset Mesa and Haisman for breach of contract for allegedly “absconding” with the remains of Thorsby and Kraschuk’s loved ones, and not returning cremains to the Workman family.
Another breach of contract claim was filed against Sunset Mesa only, repeating similar allegations.
The fifth claim advanced by the suit falls under the Colorado Consumer Protection Act; it accuses Sunset Mesa and Haisman of deceptive trade practices. The allegations include passing off services as those of another, bait and switch advertising and not obtaining all required permits and licenses required to perform agreed-upon services.
All of the named defendants are further accused of unjust enrichment.
As reported in January, public records in New Mexico show Four Corners Cremation and Burial Society was denied a direct disposition establishment license by that state’s Board of Funeral Services in 2012.
Documents associated with the denial said Haisman had advertised his establishment prior to obtaining a license and that, when the board inspected his establishment in Farmington, New Mexico, it found “multiple areas of non-compliance” concerning drainage, ventilation and lack of a sharps container for medical waste.
Sunset Mesa background
Megan Hess operated Sunset Mesa Funeral Home and Crematory in Montrose, as well as the associated Donor Services Inc., described as a non-transplant tissue bank.
January, 2018: Reuters report links Sunset Mesa to “body brokering,” denied by Hess, as are all other allegations.
February, 2018: The FBI served warrants at Sunset Mesa and Donor Services. No charges filed to-date and no public comment on the nature of its investigation.
February, 2018: The Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies suspends Hess’ crematory and mortuary registrations, finding violations of the Mortuary Science Code; that some families received cement mix instead of ashes and one family received the incorrect cremains, based on what was found with them, compared to what the deceased had been wearing when he was taken to Sunset Mesa for cremation.
May, 2018: New state law bars mortuary and crematory owners from also owning a non-transplant tissue bank.
August, 2018: Hess permanently surrenders her state registrations through an agreement that does not require her to admit the state’s allegations. The businesses close.
Ongoing: Individuals publicly disclose communication and other information from the FBI that indicates their deceased family members’ bodies were sold without their knowledge or consent.
Ongoing: Five civil suits naming Sunset Mesa Funeral Foundation, Hess, and others.
Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.