A western Colorado legislator is to soon introduce legislation that would make abuse of a corpse a felony-level offense.
State Rep. Matt Soper, a Republican representing Delta County and a wide swath of Mesa County, said the ongoing investigation into Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors and Donor Services Inc. — whose operator allegedly harvested and sold bodies and body parts without permission — is driving his bill.
The legislation, which has attracted bipartisan sponsorship in the state Senate, would up the offense of abuse of a corpse from a second-class misdemeanor to a class-6 felony, allowing for those convicted to potentially be sentenced to prison.
“It was listening to a lot of constituents who were affected by the Sunset Mesa atrocity,” Soper said Friday.
He said affected families acknowledged Sen. Don Coram’s successful bill that prevented those with closely held interests in a funeral home from also operating a “non-transplant tissue” bank, also referred to as “body brokering.” Soper said there has also been legislation preventing counties from selling or giving away the bodies of those who died indigent.
“But certainly, nothing was ever done on the criminal side. … it was a situation where abusing a corpse is one of the most horrific things I can imagine, especially once the family knows about it. This should not be a misdemeanor-2,” Soper said.
“It’s just trying to make more of the punishment fit the crime and the crime fit the punishment.”
Colorado law defines abuse of a corpse as disinterring a body without consent or treating a body or remains “in a way that would outrage normal family sensibilities.”
According to legislative research provided to Soper, there have been 31 charges and 20 convictions for abuse of a corpse in the state since 2015.
About 27 states categorize similarly defined offenses as felonies.
Soper brought up a pending case in Mesa County, involving alleged necrophilia. “There are horrible things out there,” he said.
A separate statutory provision prohibits tampering with a deceased human body. This refers to when a person willfully acts to hide or alter a human body in an attempt to interfere with legal proceedings — for instance, to help conceal a murder by disposing of a body. Tampering is a class-3 felony.
“That’s a far cry and distinct from what happened in the Sunset Mesa atrocity, where we (allegedly) had an individual who was not taking part in removing corpses for the purpose of destroying evidence, but this was more for pecuniary gain,” Soper said.
The FBI served warrants at the since-closed Sunset Mesa and the associated Donor Services Inc. in 2018. The agency’s findings are now in the hands of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which has not brought charges as of last report.
Civil suits and the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies’ findings allege Sunset Mesa and Donor Services mishandled human remains, including by returning concrete mix instead of ashes, and harvesting bodies to sell them without permission of next of kin.
These allegations are denied by Sunset Mesa’s owner, Megan Hess.
“There was not the idea that getting rid of the bodies was getting rid of evidence; it was more like the selling of merchandise,” Soper alleged. “That’s why it doesn’t get caught up in the felony-3 law.”
Since the tampering law’s enactment in 2016, there have been 34 charges and 12 convictions for the offense.
A Gunnison County woman and her husband were both convicted by plea of tampering with a body, for helping her mother bury her murdered brother on the family ranch.
The crime came to light in 2017, as part of a missing person’s investigation. Stephaine and David Jackson ultimately entered separate pleas and were sentenced to 24 and 10 years in prison, respectively. Deborah Rudibaugh, who shot her son Jacob Millison as he slept in 2015, was sentenced to 40 years after pleading guilty to second-degree murder; she died late last year.
Soper’s legislation would preclude a defendant from being convicted of both tampering and abuse of a corpse relating to the same body, in the same incident, and entailing a single act.
“My bill would say you can only get a conviction for one or the other. In my mind, a district attorney should determine which it is — either you’re destroying evidence, or it’s the other,” Soper said.
That provision would not necessarily apply to people who, for instance, tamper with one body and desecrate another, or — again as an example — someone who first conceals a body and then goes back to dismember it, as these would constitute separate acts.
But in such scenarios, a prosecutor would likely level the felony-3 charge, which is more serious, Soper said.
The legislation is in its draft phase, but will be introduced soon, he said. Senate sponsors are Rhonda Fields, a Denver Democrat, and Bob Gardner, a Colorado Springs Republican.
Montrose resident Chris Kraschuk said he welcomed news of the pending legislation and that he would like to see even tougher penalties enacted. Kraschuk is one of dozens of plaintiffs in five lawsuits filed against Sunset Mesa defendants.
“We’re hearing from enough constituents that have been victims of that atrocity that they wanted to see something, not just in white collar crime, but that highlighted increasing the penalty,” Soper said.
“It won’t give them justice at the level they would like, but it shows the Legislature is continually paying attention to this.”
Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.