Monday testimony indicated no amount of money can restore what was taken from widow Shirley Hollenback and her daughter, Diana McBride — and what they want the most, no court can secure for them: The actual cremains of Gerald “Cactus” Hollenback.
The women sued Sunset Mesa Funeral Foundation, which did business as Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors and Donor Services Inc. until February 2018, when the FBI served search warrants there.
Since that time, it has been alleged in civil lawsuits Sunset Mesa and its owner Megan Hess harvested whole bodies and body parts, without the knowledge or consent of next-of-kin, and sold them for profit.
Hess has denied the allegations, which have yet to result in charges, but which have triggered five lawsuits, including Hollenback and McBride’s.
The women on Aug. 23 settled their claims against Hess herself for the $726 costs of Cactus’ cremation. Monday’s hearing on the motion for default was against Sunset Mesa Funeral Home Foundation, the entity. The women are seeking $486,010, each, for emotional and physical distress and an additional $996,020, each, on a trebled Colorado Consumer Protection Act claim.
Hess in a Monday filing claimed to be unaware of the day’s hearing, for which neither she nor a representative appeared.
She filed to “dismiss additional claim,” apparently, the remaining claim against Sunset Mesa Funeral Foundation. Under rules pertaining to closely held corporations, Hess cannot represent the entity, District Judge Mary Deganhart previously ruled.
Cactus died May 14, 2017; although he had Alzheimer’s, he was of good bodily health and his death came as a shock, McBride, his stepdaughter, testified.
Her mother, though initially stoic, was devastated by the death of her beloved life partner, McBride said, detailing the couple’s intent: Cactus was to be cremated and his ashes kept next to those of the family dog, Mitzi; then, when Hollenback’s time came, she was to be cremated as well, and and all three sets of ashes spread together.
But according to testimony, Hollenback was in for a series of shocks that became progressively worse: When she went to collect Cactus’ ashes, she overheard Alan Koch, Hess’ father, tell an employee he did not recall cremating Cactus.
“She felt awful. She really wanted to bring him home. … She said ‘I’ll never know if it’s him.’ And that upset me,” McBride said.
McBride wanted to get to the bottom of what was happening, so she called Sunset Mesa and was directed to Hess. Hess, she said, passed the matter off as a paperwork issue, but McBride kept pushing, telling Hess her mother was in fact told staffers could not locate Cactus’ cremains.
Hess eventually agreed to stop by Hollenback’s home with the ashes that day, McBride said.
“The more I pressed her, the more anxious she got,” she testified.
McBride said she continued to ask Hess how she could prove to her mother she was getting Cactus’ ashes back.
“She never answered the question directly,” McBride said.
McBride said she wanted to push her mother to get more information, but her husband reminded her Hollenback was emotionally frail in her grief. She tried to ask delicately whether her mother felt she had the correct cremains. When Hollenback said she did, McBride dropped it for a while.
But her suspicions grew when she learned the cremains delivered had come in a plastic bag closed with a twist tie, enclosed in a cardboard box with a paper stick-on label.
“My heart sank … I thought, you don’t put a twist tie on (ashes),” McBride said.
When McBride learned a Reuters reporter contacted her mother with information about Donor Services and body brokering, “I was mortified. … My worst fear was they had mixed up his body with someone else,” McBride said. “I just kept thinking this was a slipshod operation.”
The Reuters contact changed everything — she learned of the “body-brokering” business and that funeral homes are largely unregulated.
When there was an offer to test the ashes the family had received, McBride was faced with the unimaginable: having to explain the full situation to her mother.
Attorney Aaron Acker presented McBride with a laboratory report showing the weight of the ashes were consistent with a “small female,” and not the big, broad-shouldered man who was her stepfather. McBride said up until the time she read the report, she had hoped the findings would be consistent enough to reassure the family they had the right cremains.
“But several anomalies pointed to the fact we didn’t have Cactus,” McBride said.
For her, the most glaring indication of that were the pieces of metal found in the ashes — metal rivets consistent with those found on jeans and parts of a watch. Her stepfather had been wearing pajamas when he was taken to Sunset Mesa, she testified.
“My opinion was we didn’t have him. …. It was quite upsetting. I was angry because I (had spoken) to Megan Hess and she was so flippant that it was fine, and my mom had Cactus,” McBride said.
McBride throughout her testimony told of how what happened to Cactus affected her and her mother. She recalled Cactus as a “big personality,” with whom she instantly bonded at age 7, when her mother began dating him.
The Hollenbacks married in 1971 and eventually moved to Montrose to raise their blended family of five children.
Since learning the ashes were not those of Cactus — and because of the intense media interest in the Sunset Mesa case — Hollenback has suffered terribly, her daughter said. The older woman has lost weight, suffers ongoing anxiety, and must deal with constant reminders of her loss, from news stories, to people who approach her in public to offer condolences.
“Her hearing over and over again the gruesome details is very hard,” McBride said.
McBride said it is especially frustrating to see Hess’ allegations in public court filings reported; because of their lawsuit, she and her mother cannot speak out to correct the misinformation filed by Hess, she said.
She also stressed the need for tighter regulations of the funeral industry, saying that although people tend to think of it with the same level of trust — and regulation — as the medical industry, in her research, she learned that is often not the case. People need to know what is happening in the industry and there needs to be laws requiring funeral home inspections, she said.
No amount of money could help ease their grief, McBride said when Acker asked her; instead, she was asking the court for vindication.
“If I could ask (Hess) one thing, that would be it — where is he? What did you do to him?” McBride said.
Without those answers, her mother is locked in a holding pattern of grief, forced to come to terms with not being able to grant Cactus’ final wishes.
“The grieving process cannot begin until she knows where her husband is,” Acker said, in providing Hollenback’s testimony through an offer of proof.
She is proceeding “although there is no light at the end of the tunnel” when it comes to getting Cactus back, because she wants vindication, he said.
Deganhart said she will issue a written order on the judgment for default at a later date. The order will also address Hess’ motion.
Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.