The trial for an indicted Montrose former mortician and her mother will be held in Grand Junction, rather than in Denver, a decision that prompted mixed reaction from the alleged victims.
Megan Hess, former operator of Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors and an associated business, Donor Services Inc., was indicted last year on multiple counts of mail fraud involving more than 30 decedents, and on three counts of transporting hazardous materials — the body parts of decedents who had hepatitis-C.
Hess’ mother, Shirley Koch, also was indicted on those charges, which both women deny.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office has accused the women of operating a years-long scheme to obtain human bodies and body parts for sale on the research and medical market.
The women’s trial, once set for this summer, has been pushed into next February, to the anger of survivors of deceased people whose bodies allegedly were harvested as part of the purported scheme.
However, some said they were pleased to see that the trial will take place at the Wayne Aspinall Federal Building in Grand Junction, instead of at a U.S. District court building in Denver.
“It’s closer. I won’t be going back and forth to Denver,” Montrose resident Chris Kraschuk said on Wednesday. “That really helps the peace of mind, being closer. I can do an hour of driving.”
Kraschuk used Sunset Mesa’s services to cremate his parents, Ruth and Walter. According to court documents in his successful, multi-party civil suit, he learned from the FBI in 2018 that their bodies had been sold.
Jerry Espinoza is another survivor who, as part of a multi-plaintiff action, is suing Hess, Koch, and others over the alleged mishandling of his father’s body.
Espinoza said he has mixed feelings about the trial being moved, because the jury pool on the Western Slope is smaller and the case is broadly known in the region.
“I just want it done. I think I would rather have it in Denver,” he said.
Like Kraschuk, though, he isn’t happy about the trial being delayed. “I don’t know why this has got to drag, drag and drag,” he said.
The government says dozens of people contracted with Sunset Mesa for cremation or other services, but their loved ones’ bodies were instead sold without their knowledge, consent, or in some cases, without their full consent.
The scheme as alleged by the U.S. Attorney’s office came to light following complaints made to the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies, rumors, and ultimately, an FBI investigation.
That agency served search warrants at Sunset Mesa in early 2018; the funeral home shut its doors permanently shortly thereafter. Eventually, Hess surrendered her mortuary and crematory registrations to the state.
A state law that prohibits someone who owns at least 10% of interest in a mortuary from simultaneously owning interest a “non-transplant” tissue bank followed, as did a law increasing the penalty level for abuse of a corpse. (“Non-transplant” tissue banks can and do operate legally. The law does not apply to eye banks, organ procurement banks or transplant tissue banks, which were already defined by statute.)
The federal court in June granted the defense motion to push Hess’ and Koch’s trial to next Feb. 7, but rejected the request to set it for four weeks. However, Hess’ attorneys were told they could confer with opposing counsel and file anew for a longer trial.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeremy Chaffin and defense attorney Daniel Shaffer agreed two weeks was not long enough. Each side intends to call multiple witnesses; the government’s case will bring about 50 people to the stand and the defense will be calling at least 12, excluding Hess herself, if she elects to testify, their joint motion of July 7 states.
“Here, the defendants are charged with engaging in a scheme to defraud that spans nearly a decade. In addition, the indictment specifically charges that the defendants executed this scheme by shipping the remains of 38 individual victims in six separate shipments,” the motion reads.
To make its case, the government must call multiple witnesses and that will take several days.
“Should Ms. hess elect to testify, defense counsel believes her testimony would take an additional full day. Given the scope and duration of the alleged scheme in this case and the number of anticipated witnesses, the government and Ms. Hess agree that a 20-day trial should be set in this matter,” the motion states.
Koch’s defense attorneys did not think trial would take 20 days, but did not oppose the extension, a supplemental motion filed July 8 states.
The court granted the motion July 12.
Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.