Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors

Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors, owned and directed by Megan Hess, as seen in February 2018.

Hannah Hardin loved her nieces and nephews. Frank Mazza was a proud cowboy. Mandy Baldt was a beloved sister and Bonnie Hamblin, “like a mother” to her granddaughter, while Nancy Wilson was her sons’ “best friend.”

But these memories are tainted, because they have become inextricable from reports of body harvesting and sales, family members testified Thursday in a civil suit against Sunset Mesa Funeral Foundation, owner Megan Hess, and her parents, Shirley and Allan Koch.

“It’s like a horror movie,” litigant Candace Salazar said, relaying to the Montrose District Court the pain of losing her grandmother, Bonnie Hamblin, and learning that Hamblin’s wishes to have her ashes interred with her husband can never be honored — because the family does not know whose ashes they were actually given.

Salazar and several others are part of a civil action against Sunset Mesa, captioned Artrup et. al., after the first-listed plaintiff, Christopher Artrup.

The 30 plaintiffs accuse Sunset Mesa defendants of racketeering as part of a fraudulent business scheme to acquire human remains for sale. The plaintiffs say deceased loved ones’ remains were harvested and sold, either without their consent, or that they consented to more limited tissue donations than what actually occurred.

Artrup testified Thursday to his own uncertainty: He does not know whether he has all of his parents’ ashes, which were to be spread at their favorite lake.

“I know now that we did not have the entirety of their ashes, or any part of their ashes, to be honest,” he said, explaining that if any part of Donald Artrup and Holly Artrup’s bodies had been sold, those remains cannot have been cremated.

“We were not fulfilling their dying wish,” Christopher said. “I find it very difficult when reminiscing to disentangle the thought of what happened to their bodies afterward. … I hope there is some sort of closure after this is done.”

Hess during her brief testimony repeatedly invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, saying in response to several of the questions: “I’m not going to answer that.”

Elusive closure

Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors operated a funeral home and crematory in Montrose, along with Donor Services Inc., which reportedly secured human tissue for donation to research purposes.

In February 2018, the FBI swooped in with search warrants; as the investigation continued, family members who had secured services through Sunset Mesa began receiving word that their loved ones had been sold, in whole or in part, according to prior testimony and court documents.

Hess and her mother were indicted last March on federal mail fraud charges and and charges of improper shipping of diseased body parts; the U.S. Attorney’s Office alleges the women engaged in a prolonged scheme to secure a ready supply of bodies to sell.

Hess and Koch deny all charges. Hess and the other defendants also denied the allegations in the Artrup suit, however, the plaintiffs last year were granted their motion for default judgment.

Thursday’s hearing provided Montrose District Judge Cory Jackson with more information in support of their claims for non-economic losses — pain, suffering, inconvenience, emotional distress or loss of enjoyment of life.

Although non-economic damages — if any are ultimately awarded — could tally in the millions because of the number of claimants, no one really expects to see any money from Hess, lead attorney Keith Killian said after the hearing. That includes his law firm, which took on the case as a matter of Western Slope community interest, he also said.

“It’s just about getting closure,” Killian said.

During testimony, his clients told of their struggle toward that elusive concept.

Many told of literal nightmares after they learned from the FBI that their deceased friends and relatives had been sold.

Diana Hardin’s daughter, Hannah, was 23 when she died. The family used Sunset Mesa for her arrangements, which included a viewing that drew 200 people, among them, a judge whose heart Hannah had touched. Mourners placed Hannah’s favorite scratch tickets in her coffin, along with necklaces, flowers and crosses.

Diana Hardin testified that cremation was to have occurred afterward and that she did not consent to sell or donate any part of her daughter’s body.

Hardin began dreaming of her daughter. In the dreams, Hannah told her: “Find me, Mom. Find me.”

As word of the 2018 raid spread, Hardin contacted the FBI. She learned her daughter’s spine had been sold.

“I was very angry. Hannah was the baby. Losing her was devastating,” Hardin said.

She had been keeping what she thought were her daughter’s ashes in an urn on her headboard. “I just can’t believe she may not be in there, which she’s probably not,” Hardin said.

“It’s very hurtful to lose a child, but then, I lost her again. ‘Mom, find me.’ Well, where are you? I don’t know where you’re at.”

The case has profoundly affected the rest of the family, particularly the niece who found Hannah’s body, Hardin also testified.

“I grieve in silence. I am very sad. I am very angry. My baby girl wasn’t given the dignity to be put to sleep the way she should have been,” Hardin said.

Nicole Carter talked of being betrayed twice by Sunset Mesa — instead of receiving her 35-year-old sister Mandy Baldt’s ashes, she got back what “appears to be concrete mixed with cat litter.” And her grandmother, Marlow Holloman, who she said was “my world” was never cremated, per her testimony.

The FBI told Carter her grandmother had instead been sold to MD Global. That meant the ashes the family received could not have been Holloman’s and were not, therefore, interred with Holloman’s husband, or in the urn necklace Carter had.

Carter also recounted how Baldt was to have been embalmed for her viewing, but that it was clear from her appearance she had not been. At the viewing, too, Shirley Koch appeared to be trying to keep people from touching the body, which was in a casket shorter than Baldt was tall, Carter testified.

At the time of their respective services, however, Carter had thanked Hess for the care of Baldt and Holloman.

“I handed her a rose and told her ‘Thank you for taking such good care of my grandmother,’” Carter said.

She experiences enduring trauma. “It’s how they were treated after they passed. They were such good people. They did not deserve what they got,” Carter said.

Harold Cressler was to have been donated to science, but to also be returned for cremation once the research was done, his son John Cressler testified. But instead of the two-year period expected, the family was given ashes back 45 days later and these contained items not associated with Harold, per his daughters Judy and Joy’s testimony.

“It’s an ultimate deception that somebody could do something like that and really play on someone’s emotions and take advantage of people like that,” John said.

Lee Phillips only agreed to donate her deceased common-law husband’s knee joints after being told if she did so, the cremation would be free. She did not agree to have veteran and rancher Frank Mazza’s body sold, she testified, but according to the FBI, he was sold to the firm Innoved.

She’s left without her life partner of four decades, as well as cherished mementos: Phillips had Mazza’s favorite Stetson sent along to be cremated with him. Into its band, she had placed a photo of her with her dog and the horse Frank gave her.

“A cowboy hat to a cowboy is his soul. I wanted that to go with him,” Phillips said. “Had I known she wasn’t going to do it (cremation), I would have kept that hat, because that was Frank’s soul.”

Others spoke of working toward forgiveness, with mixed success.

Gail Erman remembered her generous husband, James, with whom she had raised one biological child and 21 adopted children, along with providing foster care to about 300 over the years.

Shirley Koch brought James’ purported cremains into the church for services, at which she voiced her admiration of him, Erman testified.

The FBI eventually told the family James had been dismembered at the knees and also parts of both arms were taken; where the remains were sold is not known, per Erman's testimony.

“I choose to forgive Shirley and Megan. I don’t want bitterness in my heart,” she said. “I know Jim’s soul, his spirit is with God in heaven.”

Samuel Wilson said his mother Nancy’s wishes were “totally violated” by Sunset Mesa and his own peace about death has been replaced by anxiety about what could happen to him.

“I had no animosity in my heart to anyone on this earth. … Now, when I think of Megan Hess and Shirley Koch, I think of pure evil. I hope (anger) goes away, I hope I can forgive in time, but I haven’t been able to yet,” he said.

Testimony was also marked by expressions of guilt as several witnesses said they felt responsible for not protecting their loved ones’ bodies.

Under oath

Hess was called under a subpoena and was advised she could invoke the 5th Amendment if she thought the question was incriminating.

Killian peppered her with questions about when and where body parts were sold; how much was paid for them; whether she obtained survivors’ permission; and and how she would feel if she found out a loved one who was to have been cremated was sold.

“I’m not answering that,” Hess said to those questions, invoking the 5th Amendment.

She offered some answers to the structure of Sunset Mesa and her parents’ employment there, although she said she could not remember some of the details, such as when the Kochs began working at the business.

When asked, she said confirmed the identity of a prior owner of Sunset Mesa, but again invoked the Fifth when asked to describe their relationship, as well as when asked if she had used income from Sunset Mesa to buy personal property or transfer money to an outside fund or trust.

Hess said “no” when asked if another funeral home or the county coroner had been compensated for referring people to Sunset Mesa.

Killian will within 21 days make his final argument in writing and a revised proposed order of judgment in light of the testimony Thursday.

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

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