Memorial bench being installed in Montrose gives Sunset Mesa Funeral Home families a place to grieve

Rick Neuendorf of Montrose holds a portrait of his late wife, Cherrie, who died in 2013. Cherrie’s arrangements were handled through Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors, but the FBI says her body was sold without Rick’s knowledge. Rick testified in support of a new law that makes it a felony to abuse a corpse in Colorado.

Families who secured funeral arrangements through the now defunct Sunset Mesa Funeral Home will soon have a place to honor loved ones whose bodies are alleged to have been harvested and sold.

A memorial bench is to be installed in Montrose at Cedar Creek Cemetery, after someone paid for a plot there and also paid a Grand Junction monument company to create the bench.

A ceremony has been set for 10:30 a.m. Aug. 6, at the cemetery.

“I’m hoping it helps people out. … I’m kind of excited to go see it. It’s a relief, kind of off my chest,” said Jerry Espinoza, one of several people in Montrose, Delta and beyond who alleges the former funeral home mishandled bodies and cremains.

Espinoza’s father, also named Jerry Espinoza, was to have been cremated by Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors, which at the time also operated an associated non-transplant human tissue bank, Donor Services Inc.

The FBI served search warrants at both businesses in February 2018; the businesses soon closed and ultimately, owner Megan Hess surrendered her funeral and crematory registrations under an agreement with the state.

The Colorado Department of Regulatory Affairs, in investigating complaints against Sunset Mesa, said in an 2018 order that Sunset Mesa had returned concrete to the Espinozas and other families.

As the FBI continued the federal investigation, other families were told by the agency their loved ones’ bodies or body parts had been sold without their knowledge. Not all of these decedents have been recovered.

Earlier this year, Hess and her mother, Shirley Koch, were federally indicted on charges of mail fraud involving 38 decedents and three counts of illegally shipping diseased body parts.

Prior to the indictments, Espinoza and dozens of other survivors sued Sunset Mesa, Hess, and other defendants, in various multi-party actions.

In 2018, Espinoza and others began trying to raise funds to install memorial benches in Grand Junction and in Montrose, in order to give the bereaved, who do not have the remains of their loved ones, a place to remember them.

With help from Snyder Grand Valley Memorial, a bench was installed in Grand Junction, but efforts continued to find a good location in Montrose, as well as to raise money for the discounted memorial Snyder was providing.

Espinoza said a woman who he has not met paid for the second bench and also bought a plot in the city-owned Cedar Creek Cemetery in Montrose.

“It gives us a spot where we’ll be able to remember our loved ones. It gives us a place that is solemn,” said Rick Neuendorf of Montrose. Two years ago Tuesday, Neuendorf received shocking news from the FBI that his late wife, Cherrie, had not been cremated, but instead, her entire body had been sold and not recovered.

The pain of that continues, especially as the civil and criminal cases go on, he said.

“It’s been a long road to get this far, and there’s a long ways to go yet,” Neuendorf said.

Espinoza also hopes for resolution. “We’re dealing with it day by day,” he said.

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

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