Judge rebuffs Sunset Mesa motions for stay in body-dealing suit

Family members gather in Delta in 2018 to remember loved ones whose final arrangements were handled through Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors and whose bodies were allegedly sold without the consent of next of kin. (Montrose Daily Press/file photo)

Finding that the public and the plaintiffs’ interests outweighed other considerations, District Judge Cory Jackson denied requests by former mortuary owner Megan Hess and her parents to have civil litigation stayed.

Hess and her mother, Shirley Koch, are under federal indictment relating to their alleged scheme to acquire human remains for profit; they have been charged with mail fraud over the handling of more than 30 bodies, as well as with unlawful shipping of body parts of three decedents with hepatitis-C.

The women deny the charges and are set for trial.

Prior to the indictment, they and Hess’ father, Alan Koch, were sued by dozens of people whose deceased family members were allegedly sold without consent.

Jackson on April 7 ruled the Sunset Mesa parties were in default in one of the suits, the case brought by Chris Artrup and roughly 30 other people. The plaintiffs’ awards together totaled in the millions of dollars.

Despite that judgment, Hess and her parents each filed a motion April 23, seeking a stay.

Hess and Shirley Koch argued there should be a stay until their federal case can be resolved, on the basis that, in answering the civil suits, they would be forced to surrender their Fifth Amendment rights to maintain silence.

Alan Koch is not indicted, but argued that he is a potential witness in the federal criminal matter and at the same time, is a defendant in civil cases arising from similar allegations.

Attorneys representing the Artrup plaintiffs objected, noting the defendants had failed to confer as required under civil procedure. They said Hess and the Kochs, in a bid to “clog judicial machinery,” were reiterating motions they had made several times before, which had been denied.

Jackson in his May 24 order agreed, finding the Kochs and Hess had not followed rules of criminal procedure requiring conferral with opposing counsel and that Alan Koch has not been criminally charged.

“The defendants are in default and liability is not an issue,” Jackson wrote.

The stay motions, Jackson also wrote, “are simply duplicates” of the defendants’ original motions.

“ … The interests of the courts, the plaintiffs and the public, therefore, outweigh the interests of the defendants in seeking a stay.”

The Artrup case was one of six civil suits filed in the wake of a 2018 FBI search warrant served at Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors and Crematory, along with Donor Services Inc., on the same premises.

The mortuary closed shortly thereafter and Hess ultimately surrendered her registrations to the state, which alleged Sunset Mesa had returned substances other than human cremains to grieving families and, in one case, the incorrect cremains. Hess did not admit to those allegations under the surrender agreement.

According to allegations in the civil cases and the indictment, Sunset Mesa was procuring bodies in order to harvest and sell them, and did not secure proper permission from next of kin, or even inform many relatives of the deceased.

Four of the civil suits, including the Artrup case, have resulted in judgments against the Sunset Mesa defendants.

Hess and the Kochs have also filed for stays in the remaining two lawsuits, Abachiche, et. al. and Espinoza, et. al.

These motions make the same arguments that Jackson in the Artrup ruling denied.

The Denver law firm representing the Abachiche and Espinoza defendants on June 7 filed to have the motions for stay stricken. Those attorneys, too, say that Hess and the Kochs failed to follow civil procedure rules and that they are reiterating Fifth Amendment arguments that have already been rejected.

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

{p class=”p1”}{span class=”s1”}Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.{/span}

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