deb schum sunset messa

Deb Schum, left, supports a woman at the microphone during a 2018 memorial for decedents whose arrangements were handled through Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors. 

The trial for two women accused of mail fraud and other offenses in an alleged body procurement scheme will be delayed until August.

Megan Hess, who formerly operated Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors in Montrose, had sought a delay in federal court.

With her mother, Shirley Koch, Hess was charged with six counts of mail fraud involving 38 decedents, and with three counts of violating the regulations for shipping hazardous materials, in this instance, body parts of three decedents who were positive for hepatitis-C.

Their trial date had been reset to April but has now been moved to August, per a Monday court order. The final pretrial conference, to be held virtually, is set for July 28, with the trial to last 10 days. For now, it is set to take place in Denver.

Hess’ defense attorney filed for an extension late January, citing the complexity of the case and the ever-burgeoning amount of evidence to sift through and fully investigate so that his client can be adequately prepared for trial.

The motion, which drew the ire of families and survivors of people whose remains were allegedly harvested and sold through Sunset Mesa, was initially rejected on a procedural matter having to do with the way it was filed.

Defense attorney Daniel Shaffer refiled the motion, which reiterates information in the first. According to the new motion, Koch’s attorneys agreed to an extension of 120 days, but said the most recent discovery (evidence provided to case parties) doesn’t seem to change the complexion of the case.

Shaffer in his motion said he had a “much different view,” one that is based on Hess’ theory of the case and not Koch’s. Shaffer said Hess and Koch have “very different, if not opposing case theories.”

Continuing the trial to allow for sufficient preparation time serves the ends of justice, he said.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office did not oppose the extension.

Hess and Koch were indicted last March for mail fraud and shipping diseased body parts, which they deny.

Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors operated Sunset Mesa Funeral Home and Crematory, as well as Donor Services Inc., which purportedly obtained human tissue for research markets.

The federal government alleges Hess and Koch engaged in a scheme for several years that used the businesses to ensure a steady supply of bodies to sell, but did not inform survivors or obtain their permission. In some instances in which there was limited permission, the women sold more than what the families had agreed to, according to allegations in the indictment.

By the time of the indictments, Sunset Mesa had been under the microscope for at least two years, as well as the subject of a Reuters series about “body brokering” in the United States. The FBI, joined by state regulators, served search warrants at the funeral home in 2018.

Sunset Mesa permanently closed shortly thereafter.

In separate investigations into complaints, the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies found that Sunset Mesa had returned cement mix or other substances to some families instead of cremains and that in one instance, the business returned the incorrect cremains to a grieving widow, as determined by metal substances found in the ashes, which came from items the deceased was not wearing.

Hess, without admitting the state’s findings, eventually surrendered her state registrations for crematory and mortuary operations.

Multiple lawsuits allege people’s loved ones were sold, in whole or in part, without permission of their next of kin, or that they received something other than their loved one’s ashes. Three of the suits have led to default judgments against the Sunset Mesa defendants; others are still being litigated.

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

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