Although a bill that would increase abuse of a corpse to a felony-level crime doesn’t go far enough for some area residents, they now say they will support it as a “first step” and testify in its favor.
State Rep. Matt Soper, R-Delta County, recently introduced House Bill 1148, which retains the current statutory definition of abuse of a corpse, but elevates it from a misdemeanor to a class-6 felony. The measure comes before the House Judiciary Committee next week.
Soper said he was prompted to bring the bill because of a Montrose funeral home case, in which the operator has been accused in civil suits of harvesting and selling bodies without permission of the next of kin.
The results of an FBI investigation into the now-closed Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors and Donor Services Inc. were last year turned over to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, but no criminal charges have been filed. The former business’ owner has denied all allegations.
Despite initial misgivings about language he believed was too vague — and a desire for tougher penalties than the law allows for a class-6 felony — Montrose resident Rick Neuendorf now plans to testify for the bill on Feb. 4, along with other affected residents and officials.
Neuendorf said a meeting with Soper last weekend changed his mind.
“He (Soper) agreed this would be a first step in a long series of bills working toward what we’re after,” Neuendorf said.
Neuendorf lost his wife, Cherrie, in 2013, and arranged to have her cremated at Sunset Mesa. In 2018, after the FBI served warrants at the funeral home, Neuendorf said he learned Cherrie had not been cremated, but instead, her body was sold without his knowledge.
Thursday, Neuendorf said in the long run, he would like to see firmer regulations of funeral homes and “body brokers,” with higher penalties for violations.
He intends to ask the State House Judiciary Committee to support Soper’s bill.
“It will be stated in my statement to them that I support it only because I accept that it is the first step what our ultimate goal is,” Neuendorf said.
Debra Schum of Hotchkiss also met with Soper this past weekend to discuss the bill. She alleges Sunset Mesa harvested the body of her friend, Lora Johnson, almost immediately after the deceased was sent there. Schum, who was caring for her terminally ill friend, said she agreed only to have Johnson’s bladder donated for cancer research, but that the FBI told her Johnson’s body was sold.
Schum is a founder of a support group for Sunset Mesa families and also party to one of several lawsuits filed against the defunct funeral home.
“I think both sides learned important things,” Schum said Thursday. “I have tried to explain we have two different things going on and I don’t want the state Legislature thinking this is some kind of anomaly where we’re closing the barn door after the horses already left.”
Schum draws a distinction between the outright theft of bodies and body brokering — the selling of human remains for non-transplant purposes. As she understands it, body brokering is not illegal, as long as the legal next-of-kin or similarly situated individuals have signed over the remains.
“That part has got to be reined in,” Schum said.
She wants to see best practices developed and codified in law, to include fully informing families of their options. People who are willing to donate bodies should also be told that different states have different regulations, she said — and coroners and funeral homes should not be allowed to recommend research facilities, but instead, should have to furnish a list of facilities accepting donations.
At present, the only thing in state law that comes close to addressing body brokering is the abuse of a corpse statute, Schum said, and that is “unacceptable.”
Sunset Mesa has drawn international attention to the state, which now has the chance to refine its laws and set an example, she also said.
“This case, because of the extreme degree, all eyes are on Colorado now. People are going to be looking at Colorado. I think we could lead the way for other states to start doing something about it, too,” Schum said.
She said she is impressed with Soper’s degree of research, although at first, she thought the resulting bill was weak.
“But what we agreed is we’re going to work on a series of bills and this one is the very first step,” Schum said, adding that at least HB1148 would strengthen existing law.
“I’m going to support it as a first step, but it doesn’t go anywhere close to far enough. To me, it’s touching the doorknob. It’s not opening the door, it’s getting hold of the doorknob.
“It’s a way to start bringing the people who can and will do something about this together to have conversations.”
Neuendorf also said he would work with Soper on additional legislation. “We want to keep this out there,” he said.
Schum said the time has come for people to put aside their aversion to thinking about body brokering. “If the public doesn’t want to become aware of this, the law needs to,” she said. “I absolutely appreciate (Soper) picking up this banner and not being afraid.”