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An FBI investigator unloads equipment at the Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors and Donor Services building Tuesday morning, February 6, 2018. (William Woody, Special to the Colorado Sun)

The owner of a Montrose funeral home suspected of selling the body parts of scores of people whose families wanted them cremated has been federally indicted on nine counts, including accusations of mail fraud and the transportation of hazardous materials.

An indictment filed last week by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Denver alleges 43-year-old Megan Hess, of Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors and Donor Services, harvested body parts from hundreds of dead people without any authorization from their families. Hess’ mother, Shirley Koch, has also been indicted.

Hess and Koch, 66, were arrested on Tuesday and appeared before a judge.

The pair are accused of giving families cremains of another person, sometimes multiple other people, purporting to be returning their loved ones’ ashes. “The defendants had a container in their office full of various deceased individuals’ cremations,” Colorado’s U.S. Attorney, Jason Dunn, told reporters in a briefing on Tuesday afternoon. 

The scheme allegedly lasted from 2010 to about February 2018, and helped Hess and Koch earn hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

MORE: Read the indictment.

The indictment, made public on Tuesday, says some families agreed to donation or to giving small samples, such as tumors or portions of skin, for testing or research. “Other families believed, based on representations from Hess or Koch, that donated remains would be used to treat living recipients. Still others only authorized donation of specific body parts, such as specific organs, but specifically denied donation for anything else.”

Hess and Koch, however, would frequently “exceed that authorization they obtained,” the indictment alleges.

“Body parts beyond those which were authorized, if not entire bodies, would be sold,” the indictment says, “In each of these instances, the families would not have authorized donation had they been informed of what would actually be done with their loved one’s remains.”

The indictment details the shipment of the parts of nearly 40 bodies through the mail and on planes from April 2015 to June 2017.

“In many instances, a decedent’s entire body was sold,” the indictment says. “Nevertheless, the families were charged, and paid typically $1,000 or more, for a cremation that never occurred. These families would receive cremains replaced or supplemented by Hess or Koch with the cremains from another person or persons.”

The pair allegedly forged the signatures of family members in dozens in instances, purporting to allow body or body part donations. Hess or Koch would also, according to the indictment, sell bodies or body parts of people infected with HIV or hepatitis after representing them as being free of disease. The indictment says that Koch typically drew blood to test for infectious diseases, but in dozens of cases sold bodies even though they tested positive. 

Hess came under investigation as early as late 2017 after it was revealed that Sunset Mesa not only provided funeral and cremation services, but that she ran a company out of the building that sold human body parts to research labs and others across the world.

Members of the FBI, along with Montrose law enforcement investigate the Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors and Donor Services building Tuesday morning, February 6, 2018. (William Woody, Special to the Colorado Sun)

The mail fraud accusations stem from the fact Hess and Koch sent remains that they had fraudulently obtained through the mail. The transportation of hazardous materials accusations stem from the fact that the pair shipped infected remains — including heads, a spine and legs — as cargo on commercial flights, including by United and American.

If convicted, Hess and Koch could each face up to 135 years in prison. 

Many affected on the Western Slope

The investigation into Hess began after families came forward to say they had requested Sunset Mesa cremate their loved ones, but received strange-looking cremains in return.

The number of people affected grew so large that the FBI created a dedicated tip line. A Facebook group formed where alleged victims could talk about what happened to them.

“Many victims of this case have eagerly awaited justice,” Dunn said on Tuesday. “I understand that this day has been a long time coming.”

On Tuesday, at least one potential victim was happy to hear the news of Hess’ indictment.

“I wonder if she’s questioning now if it’s worth it,” said Nastassja Olson, who worries that she may be one of Hess’ victims. “I think it will bring me some closure knowing that she isn’t allowed to do this anymore and there’s some justice out there. She gets to suffer. She gets to suffer in prison for a long time.” 

Olson’s mother, Gina Pace, died in an April 2017 car crash near Telluride. Gina’s body was immediately sent to Sunset Mesa because that’s the vendor the San Miguel County coroner used. Olson flew in from Oregon to settle her mother’s affairs and says Hess immediately rubbed her the wrong way when they met at the funeral home. 

“The lady gave me the creeps from the get go,” Olson said in an interview Tuesday. “She was clearly trying to take advantage of people in their time of mourning.”

Olson said Hess was about to embalm her mother’s body against her wishes. Then, when she showed up at Sunset Mesa, Olson said her mother was wearing off-putting makeup and a dress that was out of character — services that she was charged for despite the fact that they were carried out against her wishes. Then Hess set up a webpage in her mother’s memory, also against Olson’s wishes, which allowed mourners to purchase flowers that Olson says she never received.

“She wouldn’t let us be alone with my mother’s body,” Olson said. 

When Olson and other family members tried to peel back a quilt draped over Gina, Olson says Hess repeatedly stopped them.

“We kind of wonder: Had she already potentially started to mess with her body or cut something up?” Olson said. Her mother was later cremated. 

Months later, when she discovered that Sunset Mesa was under investigation, Olson began looking through her mother’s cremains and found items that appeared out of place.

“I found a bunch of stuff in the ashes that just seemed like it shouldn’t really be there,” Olson said. “A bunch of weird metal pieces — almost looked like metal tacks and screws.”

The ashes were tested by investigators and found to be human remains, but Olson wonders if they were mixed with someone else’s loved one or loved ones. 

“We’re just kind of left not knowing,” Olson said. “We might have her body, we might not. We might have other people’s ashes. It could be a mixture.”

State lawmakers take action

The situation has prompted a number of bills at the Colorado legislature to prevent such a scheme from ever occurring again.

In 2018, state lawmakers passed a bill that would prohibit a person who owns 10% or more interest in a crematory from also owning a body broker business. 

This year, the legislature sent a bill to Gov. Jared Polis that would make abusing a corpse a Class 6 felony. It’s currently a Class 2 misdemeanor. The measure, House Bill 1148, is awaiting Polis’ signature.

Dunn, Colorado’s U.S. attorney, wouldn’t rule out further action in the case.

“The investigation remains open and ongoing is all I will say at this point,” Dunn said.

Asked why the indictment hinted there were possibly hundreds of victims in the case but the charges only reflect a few dozen of those, Dunn said prosecutors are pursuing the allegations for which they believe they can win a conviction.

“We brought charges specifically in those cases we think we can prove without a reasonable doubt that a fraud occurred,” he said.

Olson said despite whatever comfort Hess’ arrest may give her, the unknowns are disturbing.

“It’s extremely haunting,” she said.

The Colorado Sun —

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Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage.

A Colorado College graduate, Jesse worked at The Denver Post from June 2014 until July 2018, when he joined The Sun. He was also an intern at The Gazette in Colorado Springs and The News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, his hometown.

Jesse has won awards for long form feature writing, public service reporting, sustained coverage and deadline news reporting.

Email: Twitter: @jesseapaul