One of two women indicted federally in an alleged body-sale scheme won a continuance because her co-counsel had only been recently appointed to defend her.

The Dec. 30 decision to grant Shirley Koch’s motion means the trial that had been set to start on Feb. 7 is vacated. The court’s December order also applies to Koch’s daughter, Megan Hess, the former operator of Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors, who was also slated for trial.

“Denying the motion would result in prejudice to Defendant Koch’s rights, which outweigh the interests of the public,” U.S. District Judge Christine Arguello wrote in the order.

Koch and Hess were indicted in 2020, a little more than two years after the FBI raided the funeral home and the associated business, Donor Services Inc.

According to court filings in several civil suits against Hess and other defendants, the former mortician agreed to cremate deceased people, but instead harvested and sold their bodies or body parts through Donor Services without permission from the next of kin.

It is further alleged that Hess returned concrete mix or kitty litter to several bereaved families and passed these substances off as cremains. One family that ultimately secured a judgment against Sunset Mesa had cremains returned that contained the remnants of a watch and metal rivets. Their husband and stepfather had been wearing only pajamas when his body was taken to Sunset Mesa, per those court filings.

Hess, who with her mother denies all allegations, gave up her funeral home and crematory registrations to the state of Colorado under a stipulated agreement.

Since the case broke, the state has passed more laws to regulate the funeral home industry, including one that restricts funeral home owners from holding majority ownership in a non-transplant tissue bank like Donor Services. Other laws have toughened penalties for mishandling human remains.

In March of 2020, Hess and Koch were indicted on six counts of aiding and abetting mail fraud (relating to more than 30 deceased individuals) and three counts of aiding and abetting transportation of hazardous materials — shipping body parts of three decedents who had hepatitis C.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office accuses the women of operating a years-long scam to obtain bodies and body parts for sale.

Getting the case to trial is another matter. As defendants, Hess and Koch have due process rights, including the right to effective representation from counsel.

Koch’s original counsel moved to withdraw from her case; at about the same time, Koch underwent a competency evaluation and was deemed fit to stand trial. Her newest attorney was only appointed on Dec. 1; the evidence in the case is voluminous, with thousands of pages of documents and hundreds of media files to be reviewed and investigated by the defense.

In December, Koch’s legal team asked for the trial to be postponed for at least 180 days and for a status hearing to be set toward the end of that period.

Assistant US Attorney Tim Neff opposed the motion, noting that the case — in which trial has been continued four times previously — has dragged on. Neff said Koch’s loss of original counsel is not the fault of the family members of the deceased and those survivors’ interests are harmed by the repeated delays.

The delays also affect the case because witnesses may die, become too ill, or their memories fade over time; the continuances also prevent “timely closure,” Neff said.

Arguello’s ruling noted the case has been pending for nearly two years.

“The court is aware that the victims in this case would like closure, however, the court cannot disregard the constitutional rights of Defendant Koch, who is entitled to have effective assistance of counsel,” the judge said, finding this interest outweighs those of the public.

She granted a 180-day continuance. A status conference is now set for Jan. 19. Attorneys were told to be prepared to address setting a new trial date on or before Aug. 8 (six months from the original Feb. 7 trial date).

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

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

Better than a comments section

Discuss the news on NABUR,
a place to have local conversations

The Neighborhood Alliance for Better Understanding and Respect
A site just for our local community
Focused on facts, not misinformation
Free for everyone

Join the community
What's NABUR?