Tammy Neil holds a picture of her father

Tammy Neil holds a picture of her father, Leroy Gonzales, with her mother, Helen Gonzales, last year during a memorial at Confluence Park, Delta. Gonzales’ widow is one of about 30 plaintiffs in the latest suit against Sunset Mesa Funeral Foundation. 

About 30 people have joined a new multi-party action against Sunset Mesa Funeral Foundation and associated individuals.

The complaint, filed Sept. 6, alleges that through the now defunct foundation — which did business in Montrose as Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors and Donor Services Inc. in Montrose — owner Megan Hess and her parents, Alan and Shirley Koch, engaged in racketeering as defined under the Colorado Organized Crime Control Act.

“Defendants have been involved in the … ongoing fraudulent business scheme to acquire dead human bodies and body parts to sell for profit,” the complaint alleges.

The complaint also names a family trust and a “John or Jane Doe” trust.

In addition to alleging violation of the COCCA, the Sept. 6 suit, titled “Artrup, et. al.,” alleges false representation; nondisclosure or concealment; breach of fiduciary duty; violation of fiduciary relationship arising out of a confidential relationship; extreme and outrageous conduct; breach of contract; claims under the Rights and Stolen Property Act; violation of the Colorado Consumer Protection Act; civil conspiracy; aiding and abetting; unjust enrichment and negligence claims, entailing abuse of a corpse, violation of the state’s Mortuary Science Code and cremation statute and violation of the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act.

“As a society, we have to look at this case and see what it’s really all about,” plaintiffs’ attorney Keith Killian said Monday, pointing to Egyptian pyramids, Greek sarcophagi and Hebrew sepulchers.

“Traditionally, we’ve always treated those passed away with dignity and respect and made it a sacred matter. This is true in all the major religions, including Hindu, Buddhism, Christianity and Judaism. Each religion has had this legacy of treating those who passed from this life with respect and honoring them. This is also true for other cultures, like the Vikings or indigenous people of the Americas. They all had cultural end of life ceremonies,” Killian said.

“The question this case presents is, does this history … does it still apply today in the United States? Does it still apply today in Montrose? If so, how do we treat what has occurred at Sunset Mesa? That’s the issue I think is before us in this matter.”

The Sept. 6 suit is the sixth to be filed over Sunset Mesa’s alleged harvesting and selling of human remains, and is the fourth with multiple plaintiffs.

A response to the suit is not yet due and it had not been formally served as of Monday. Hess has previously denied allegations raised in similar suits.

Her business closed in February 2018, after the FBI served search warrants there. To-date, no charges have been filed.

The state of Colorado’s Department of Regulatory Agencies at first suspended Hess’ funeral and crematory registrations; she later agreed to a permanent surrender, but did not admit to the state’s findings in that matter.

Hess and the Kochs engaged in willful and reckless conduct by agreeing to provide the bodies or body parts of the plaintiffs’ deceased loved ones to various “body handlers,” the most recent complaint says.

According to the document, the plaintiffs experienced emotional distress when they learned from the FBI that Sunset Mesa had sold the bodies without obtaining their consent.

The lead plaintiff, Christopher Artrup, arranged to have his father, Donald, cremated through Sunset Mesa. Even though he did not consent to sell, donate or lease his father’s body, the FBI told Artrup last October that half of Donald’s body had been sold and the other half, cremated, Killian wrote in the complaint.

“He has visions of his father being sawed in half. It is an image that continues to haunt him,” Killian wrote.

Further, the defendants did not return gold jewelry Donald was wearing at the time of his death, the complaint alleges.

Artrup also accuses Hess and the Kochs of mishandling the remains of his mother. Per the suit, the FBI informed Artrup that only one-third of Holly Artrup’s body had been cremated and agents were trying to track down the rest of her remains.

Another plaintiff, Nicole Carter, is suing over the handling of her sister, Mandy Baldt’s, and her grandmother, Marlow Holloman’s, remains. Carter became suspicious at her sister’s viewing in 2017: “the casket appeared to be shorter than the body of Mandy Baldt. At the viewing, Mandy Baldt’s body appeared to be deformed,” the filing states.

It further alleges Shirley Koch refused to let anyone touch the body.

The deceased’s “‘cremains’ appeared to be similar to the ‘cremains’ represented by Sunset Mesa to be her grandmother’s ‘cremains,’ which upon information and belief were not actually the cremains of her grandmother,” Killian wrote. The cremains received were sent to Quantico for testing.

Other plaintiffs consented to donating bodies when they were told doing so “would help someone,” per the complaint.

But Edna Benson learned that, instead, her son’s body was sold and sent somewhere in China, Killian alleged, and although the cremains returmed to Benson were found to be consistent with bone material, it is not known whether the material was the deceased. Benson is traumatized and emotionally disturbed by what happened, per the complaint, which later says there were other plaintiffs who consented to types of donations, only to learn from the FBI their loved one was sold.

One family’s dispute arose over irregularities on a death certificate that led to a complaint being filed with the Better Business Bureau.

Although Winona Cressler signed a body donation form — provided in the middle of the night — after her husband, Harold, died, she spotted two mistakes on his death certificate that contradicted written information she had provided, Killian wrote.

Hess allegedly tried to charge Cressler for a corrected death certificate and held Harold’s cremains until such payment was provided.

“Harold Cressler wanted his remains to be used for research in the hope that is remains could assist in finding a cure of the lung cancer he contracted working as a uranium miner,” Killian wrote.

But Hess allegedly informed his widow she had done her own medical research on his body, which she kept for 45 days.

Another family member then filed a complaint with the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies. Ultimately, the complaint says, the Cressler family learned from the FBI Harold hadn’t been cremated or donated, but instead, Sunset Mesa sold him to Global Anatomy Project.

This “appalled and distressed” the family, who also allege the cremains they received back contained items that were not on Harold’s body when it was taken to Sunset Mesa. What the family found in the ashes led them to believe Sunset Mesa was “burning trash along with human remains.”

The suit details how other plaintiffs were affected upon learning from the FBI that their loved ones’ body parts had been harvested and sold off. Several allege that although the ashes they received were consistent with bone when tested, they also contained items not associated with the deceased.

Debra Schum, a Hotchkiss resident who was among the first to speak out about Sunset Mesa last year, is also a party to the action. Schum was the caregiver for her best friend, LoraLee Johnson, who succumbed to bladder cancer in 2017.

Schum thought she had to use the funeral home a local hospice referred to her, so she allowed Shirley Koch to take Johnson’s body, even though Koch’s alleged conduct was unprofessional and disrespectful, entailing inappropriate comments and having Schum help her load Johnson onto the gurney.

Schum later attempted to pay for Johnson’s cremation by credit card, but was told no. Instead, she was told if she agreed to organ donation, cremation would be at no cost, the complaint says. Schum was resistant and Hess then allegedly told her to “think about how many lives could be saved” if Johnson’s body were donated for cancer research.

Schum agreed only to have Johnson’s bladder donated and the form she signed stated “bladder only,” per the suit.

Johnson had died that June; by Aug. 4, 2017, Schum still did not have her friend’s ashes. When she appeared at Sunset Mesa in Montrose, Hess went to the back of the funeral home and returned with a dollar-store gift bag without an ID tag; the bag held a small container, which Hess explained was “because of the donation,” the complaint states.

Schum said, via the lawsuit, the FBI later told her Johnson’s entire body had been sold as soon as it came into Sunset Mesa.

Schum remains disturbed by what happened, the complaint also says.

“I have joined this civil suit because, since I talked to the FBI last year, the information I was given has infiltrated every aspect of my life,” Schum said Monday.

“Every day I wonder what happened to the body of my friend LoraLee. Every night I wake up to horrifying images of dismembered bodies spread all over the world. As a firefighter and first responder, fatality calls make me worried for the deceased.

“There is no ‘closure’ for this type of thing — there is only trying to figure out how to cope with it.”

The Sunset Mesa defendants betrayed the trust of the families and other survivors, per the complaint, causing them both economic and non-economic harm and constituting bad faith.

Each defendant is entitled to treble damages under the Colorado Consumer Protection Act, Killian argued.

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

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