More than 30 people filed a fresh lawsuit against Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors and multiple other defendants, alleging their loved ones’ bodies and body parts were harvested without permission and sold at “arrestingly below market” prices.
The June 30 complaint, “Wabel, et. al,” lists macabre allegations against the now-closed Montrose mortuary and its owner Megan Hess, including the FBI’s purported discovery of co-mingled body parts and “buckets” of severed limbs that could not be matched to bodies.
Lead plaintiff Lisa Wabel had her father, Donald Hanhardt cremated and, for nearly six years, rested in the assurance it had been done as agreed.
But in February, the FBI told her Hanhardt’s arms, shoulders and legs had been sold to one company and that his head and torso went to a now-defunct organization.
Agents “explained that it was difficult to locate all of her father’s body parts, as they had been co-mingled with other victims’ bodies and body parts,” the complaint states.
“Defendants’ actions stole from Lisa the cherished memories of her father and still overshadow her memory of their final goodbyes. Now all she is left with are vivid visions and anxieties as to what became of her father’s body.”
The complaint goes on to detail similar experiences of the other plaintiffs:
Teresa Gilliam learned last July that she had not received back her husband’s ashes, but dry cement, animal remains, zippers, screws, a tooth with a crown even though her husband had dentures, and rivets from jeans.
Jerry Gilliam’s head and torso had been sold, the suit alleges, citing the FBI. The agent “ explained that it was impossible at this time to account for Jerry’s limbs because the Sunset Mesa facility was strewn with 5 gallon buckets full of arms and legs without any identification as to which bodies they belonged to,” attorney David TeSelle of the Denver firm Burg Simpson wrote.
The family of lightning-strike victim John Huisjen alleged his body was taken to Sunset Mesa without them having selected it as the funeral home. Per the complaint, his parents explicitly refused consent to donate his body and noticed Hess’ alleged “odd comments as to how nice John’s legs were.”
The FBI last summer informed the Huisjens his body had been dismembered and “sold piecemeal” to unknown entities. Their plans to scatter what they thought were his ashes “came to a terrible halt,” the attorney wrote.
The complaint goes on to detail how alleged body trafficking similarly harmed 34 other plaintiffs, who were “stripped of closure,” or experienced nightmares, shock, humiliation and guilt, like plaintiff Londa Sessoms. Sessoms had promised her father Lloyd Norlin — who had in life undergone several surgeries— that she would not “let anyone cut him again.”
Still another plaintiff, Julie Gower, has to contend with severe anguish, because none of her husband Robert’s body can be recovered — it had been used and “disposed of as medical waste,” per the complaint.
The Wabel lawsuit is the second multi-party litigation to be filed by Burg Simpson against Sunset Mesa, Hess and several other defendants, and overall, the fifth lawsuit to be filed since the scandal broke in early 2018.
Burg Simpson earlier this year filed a suit on behalf of more than 60 individuals, an action known as “Espinoza et. al.”
The new slate of plaintiffs in Wabel et. al make similar complaints against Hess and other parties: “heinous fraud committed upon bereaved families,” whose loved ones’ bodies were “dismembered, carved up and sold piecemeal for profit” as part of a civil conspiracy.
“The bereaved are preyed upon, the deceased are desecrated and grieving families are left shocked, outraged, betrayed and without peace or knowledge of what has become of their loved ones,” the complaint states, alleging Hess was at the center of the conspiracy in which, instead of cremating the dead as she had agreed, the bodies were taken to a back room at Sunset Mesa, dismembered, stacked into coolers and, sometimes, in a flower refrigerator, before being shipped sold to “body-buyer” corporations.
Hess formerly operated Sunset Mesa Funeral Home and Crematory, as well as the associated Donor Services Inc., described as a non-transplant tissue bank. Both businesses closed last year, after a Reuters report linked Hess and the businesses to alleged body-brokering, and after the FBI arrived with search warrants for the premises. Hess has previously denied allegations against her as false.
Under a stipulation with the state of Colorado, Hess surrendered her crematory and mortuary licenses. The state earlier found that Hess had returned concrete mixture and incorrect cremains to clients, which Hess also denies.
The FBI has not publicly disclosed the nature of the federal probe and charges have not been filed. Since the FBI served warrants at Sunset Mesa in February 2018, affected individuals have publicly disclosed communication and other information from the agency that indicates their deceased family members’ bodies were sold without their knowledge or consent.
Wabel et. al alleges outrageous conduct, unjust enrichment, fraud, negligence, negligence per se, aiding and abetting and civil conspiracy. It also makes a claim under the Colorado Consumer Protection Act and the Colorado Organized Crime Control Act.
Not all claims are made against all defendants, who include Hess; a trust in the name of a minor; her parents, Alan and Shirley Koch; Montrose County Coroner Dr. Thomas Canfield; several companies accused of purchasing bodies and body parts without proper documentation; Hope West Hospice and Palliative Care; Mesa Funeral Service and Retriever Freight Company, which was was dismissed from Espinoza, the first multi-party suit.
The plaintiffs in Wabel have reserved their right to add more body-buyer defendants as they become known.
In Wabel, the plaintiffs allege no consent for donation was obtained, as required. Instead, bodies and body parts were sold to the buyer defendants “often at suspiciously discounted prices” … “arrestingly below market prices,” and used for medical research, testing corrosives and testing explosives.
The suit contends the defendants should have known what was taking place, yet continued doing business with Hess, who allegedly boasted she was making $40,000 per month selling bodies and parts, while Shirley Hock allegedly “bragged that gold crowns she pried off cadavers financed a family trip to Disney Land.”
Wabel et. al further alleges Canfield was present at the mortuary several times a week and that he knew, aided and abetted in the purported conspiracy, including by directing bodies to Sunset Mesa and setting up policies to ensure his office would be notified of all deaths in order to “ensure a steady supply of bodies” — allegations Canfield has through his response in Espinoza et. al already denied.
Hope West is accused of recommending Sunset Mesa’s cremation services, resulting in bodies being transferred there; therefore, the hospice knew, aided and abetted, or should have known about the conspiracy to fraudulently acquire and illegally traffic bodies, the Wabel complaint further alleges.
Hope West, like Canfield and multiple other defendants, has in Espinoza et. al denied the allegations and filed for dismissal of that complaint.
Mesa Funeral Service is in Wabel accused of contracting with four plaintiffs to cremate their loved ones, but instead, sent the bodies to Sunset Mesa, even though its representatives also should have known about the body trafficking.
It has in the earlier action denied the allegations.
The Board of Montrose County Commissioners was voluntarily dismissed from the action without prejudice, as was the coroner’s office (but not the coroner). “Without prejudice” holds open the door for possibly refiling against the dismissed defendants.
Another former defendant in the Espinoza suit, MD Global LLC, was dismissed by stipulation.
Responses have not yet been filed in the Wabel complaint.
Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.
Claims and defendants
• Outrageous conduct: Megan Hess, Sunset Mesa, Shirley Koch, Alan Koch, Dr. Thomas Canfield, Mesa Funeral Service, Retriever Freight, Southwest Institute for Bio Advancement, Innoved, MD Global, Axogen, American Plastination Company, Global Anatomy Project, Medcure, Johns Doe and body-user Johns Doe.
(Medcure Inc., based in Oregon, was raided by the FBI in 2017, but no charges have been filed, according to a Jan. 22 report by the Willamette Week.)
• Unjust enrichment: Hess, a trust in a minor’s name, the Kochs, Retriever, Canfield, Hope West, Sunset Mesa, Mesa Funeral Service, body-buyer defendants and body-user Johns Doe.
• Fraud: Hess, the Kochs and Sunset Mesa.
• Negligence: Hess, Sunset Mesa, the Kochs, Canfield, Mesa Funeral Service, Hope West, Retriever, body-buyer defendants and body-user Johns Doe.
• Negligence per se: Hess, Sunset Mesa, Canfield, body-buyer defendants and body-user Johns Doe.
• Aiding and abetting: Canfield, Mesa Funeral Service, Hope West, Retriever, body-buyer defendants and body-user Johns Doe.
• Civil conspiracy: Seller defendants and abetting defendants.
• Colorado Consumer Protection Act: Sunset Mesa, Hess, Mesa Funeral Service
• Colorado Organized Crime Control Act: Seller defendants and abetting defendants.