•Individuals representing two estates join action
•FBI probe of Sunset Mesa ongoing
•Litigation alleges bodies harvested, sold without permission
By Katharhynn Heidelberg
More parties have joined a Durango woman’s lawsuit against Sunset Mesa Funeral Foundation, which did business as Sunset Mesa Funeral Home and Donor Services Inc., until its state registrations were suspended in wake of complaints and a separate FBI investigation.
Terri Thorsby filed suit last month against the foundation and owner Megan Hess, alleging Sunset Mesa harvested the body of her mother, Mildred Carl, and sold parts of her without Thorsby’s knowledge or consent.
In an amended complaint filed Jan. 29, Montrose resident Chris Kraschuk, individually and on behalf of the estate of his parents, Walter and Ruth, joined Thorsby’s complaint.
Also listed as new parties were James Workman, Larry Bedard, Patrick Bedard, Lisa Beresford and Lee Bedard, individually and on behalf of the estate of Diana Ann Workman.
Court records did not show a return of service on the amended complaint. District Judge Mary Deganhart on Feb. 1 issued an order that requires the plaintiffs to provide proof of service for the amended complaint.
The multi-party complaint alleges outrageous conduct by Hess and Sunset Mesa, as well as fraud, breach of contract, breach of contract resulting in severe emotional distress, and violation of the Colorado Consumer Protection Act.
The defendants are accused of harvesting body parts and organs of the parties’ deceased parents without authorization, and giving them to Donor Services, Hess’ related non-transplant tissue donation business that operated on the same grounds as Sunset Mesa in Montrose. (A new state law passed last year has since made it illegal for someone with a 10-percent or greater interest in a mortuary or crematory to operate a non-transplant tissue bank.)
“Hess, Sunset Mesa and Donor services conspired to defraud plaintiffs and set up a system by which they could entice plaintiffs to use Hess and Sunset Mesa to cremate their parents and then take the remains and give them to Donor Services without consent or authorization, for the defendants’ own pecuniary gain,” the suit states.
Hess and Sunset Mesa “took advantage” of the plaintiffs’ fragile emotional states, with the intent of causing severe emotional distress, the complaint also says.
The document calls the alleged conduct “so outrageous in character and so extreme in degree, that a reasonable member of the community would regard the conduct as atrocious, going beyond all possible bounds of decency and utterly intolerable in a civilized society.”
Kraschuk’s mother, Ruth, died in 2016. His father, Walter, died in 2017. Although Kraschuk “understood his parents’ remains would be donated to science,” they also were to be “fully returned to Sunset Mesa for cremation of the remains,” the amended complaint says.
But after Reuters last year broke the news of a possible “body brokering” operation at Sunset Mesa, Kraschuk, like many families in Montrose and surrounding counties, became concerned. In February 2018, he told the Montrose Daily Press he wasn’t sure if he in fact had his parents’ cremains.
Later testing through Colorado Mesa University’s laboratory revealed the contents of his parents’ urns did contain ashes consistent with bone material, but he remained suspicious.
Last November, the FBI notified Kraschuk, in a letter he shared with the Daily Press, that he was possibly the victim of a crime.
Kraschuk “learned from the FBI that defendants harvested and sold for profit the spine and knee of Ruth Marie Kraschuk and the lower half of Walter Alexander Kraschuk,” the Jan. 29 complaint states.
Diana Workman died in 2016; per the complaint, Lee Bedard made arrangements through Sunset Mesa.
Although Hess and Sunset Mesa took Diana Workman’s body, they “would never provide her cremains,” according to the suit.
Thorsby had engaged Four Corners Cremation and Burial Society of the Cortez area to handle arrangements for both of her parents, Mildred Carl, who died in 2014, and Larry Carl, who died in 2015.
She authorized that facility to make cremation arrangements through Sunset Mesa, with the understanding Sunset Mesa would perform cremation and return the ashes.
Instead, Thorsby learned from the FBI that her mother’s pelvis, arms, right knee to foot, left knee, and head had been harvested, the complaint states.
Per the complaint, Thorsby also suspects her father was harvested.
The suit alleges a scheme by which Sunset Mesa would give survivors the cremains of other decedents; or cement or concrete, or would cremate the parts of the deceased that weren’t used by Donor Services, representing these as the complete set of cremains.
Four Corners Cremation and Burial’s registration expired Nov. 30, 2018, although state records list its status as “active.” The society’s address on file with the state is 155 Merchant Drive, the same as Sunset Mesa’s building, which Hess leased.
The FBI made known its investigation into Sunset Mesa when it served search warrants there in February 2018, although it has not publicly disclosed the nature of the probe.
Since that time, multiple families have, citing communication from the FBI, come forward to allege their loved ones’ bodies were dismembered and sold to plastination firms without their knowledge or consent.
Others have alleged they received concrete mix, not ashes.
Another family, which has filed a separate suite against Hess and Sunset Mesa, alleges having received ashes containing metal materials inconsistent with what their loved one was wearing when sent for cremation.
The Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies investigated multiple complaints against Sunset Mesa, separate of the FBI matter and, within one week of the federal raid, issued orders of temporary suspension of the business’ mortuary and crematory registrations.
Later last year, Hess entered a stipulation that permanently surrendered the registrations, although she did not admit the state’s allegations by doing so.
A review of other state documents revealed county officials and others engaged in the funeral business had been raising questions concerning Sunset Mesa’s alleged practices since 2014.
The state in its orders of suspension found “multiple, willful” violations of the Mortuary Science Code and cited different cases, among them, that of Gerald “Cactus” Hollenback, whose body was clad in pajamas when he was taken to Sunset Mesa for cremation.
His widow and stepdaughter, who have also filed suit, received cremains containing bits of a watch, metal rivets and a zipper, according to DORA’s finding and their civil complaint.
The Hollenback suit is set for trial starting March 18; motions for default judgment have been filed.
Another suit, brought by Julee Glynn, alleges Sunset Mesa harvested parts of the body of her brother, Michael Good, despite his having said prior to death that he never wanted to have his body donated.
Motions for default judgment have also been filed in that case and a hearing has been set for Tuesday.Katharhynn Heidelberg is an award-winning journalist and the senior writer for the Montrose Daily Press. Follow her on Twitter @kathMDP.