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Former Funeral Home Operators Sentenced for Illegally Selling Body Parts

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Two funeral home operators in Colorado were sentenced this week for illegally selling bodies and body parts without consent from the families of the deceased, the U.S. Attorney's Office said Tuesday. 

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Megan Hess, 46, one of Sunset Mesa Funeral Home operators in Montrose, Colorado, was sentenced to 20 years in prison after pleading guilty to mail fraud and aiding and abetting. According to a press release from the Attorney’s Office, from 2010 through 2018, Hess stole the bodies and body parts of hundreds of victims who were meant to be cremated (via the U.S. Department of Justice):

“[The] defendant and others stole the bodies or body parts of hundreds of victims, and then sold those remains to victims purchasing the remains for body broker services. Under the auspices of Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors, the defendant would frequently meet with victims seeking cremation services for themselves or their loved ones who had died. During those meetings, the defendant and others would represent to the victims that Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors would cremate decedents and provide their cremated remains back to the families. Instead, the defendant and others would harvest body parts from, or prepare the entire bodies of, the decedents for sale in body broker services.”

According to BBC, without consent and using forged donor documentation, Hess sold arms, legs, and heads through Donor Services, her “side business” on the same premises as the funeral home. She reportedly charged families up to $1,000 for cremations that never occurred. And several deceased relatives learned later that they had received ashes mixed with the remains of other people.

Shirley Koch, 69, was sentenced to 15 years in prison after pleading guilty to mail fraud and aiding and abetting. Like Hess, Koch met with families seeking cremation services for their loved ones who had passed away. In many instances, neither Koch nor Hess discussed or obtained authorization for donating bodies or body parts for body broker services. In other scenarios, when Hess or Koch brought up the topic of the donation, the families rejected it. Despite this, Koch and Hess recovered parts from “hundreds” of bodies against the families’ wishes, according to the Attorney’s Office for the District of Colorado (via DOJ):

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“[Despite] lacking any authorization, Koch and Hess recovered body parts from, or otherwise prepared entire bodies of hundreds of decedents for body broker services. In the few instances where families agreed to donation, Hess and Koch sold the remains of those decedents beyond what was authorized by the family, which was often limited to small tissue samples, tumors, or portions of skin. Hess and Koch also delivered cremains to families with the representation that the cremains were that of the deceased when, frequently, that was not the case.”

The plea agreements reportedly said that Hess and Koch would ship bodies and body parts that tested positive for infectious diseases, like Hepatitis B and C, and HIV. They told buyers that the bodies and body parts were “disease free.” 

“These shipments would be through the mail or on commercial air flights in violation of Department of Transportation regulations regarding the transportation of hazardous materials,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said. 

“The defendants’ conduct was horrific and morbid and driven by greed. They took advantage of numerous victims who were at their lowest point given the recent loss of a loved one. We hope these prison sentences will bring the victim’s family members some amount of peace as they move forward in the grieving process,” U.S. Attorney Cole Finegan said in a statement.

“These two women preyed on vulnerable victims who turned to them in a time of grief and sadness. But instead of offering guidance, these greedy women betrayed the trust of hundreds of victims and mutilated their loved ones,” FBI Denver Acting Special Agent in Charge Leonard Carollo said in a statement. 

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“Without knowledge or consent, the women disrespected the wishes of the grieving victims and degraded the bodies of their family members to sell them for profit. These two criminals continued in their atrocities for years, showing no remorse or contrition even after being exposed. Nothing can guarantee solace for the victims or repair the damage done, but perhaps this sentence can mark the end of a horrible chapter in their lives,” Carollo added. 

BBC reported that Koch and Hess did this to the corpses of 560 people who had passed away between 2010 and 2018. The case was reportedly jumpstarted by an investigation by Reuters, which led to an FBI raid in 2018. 

According to Reuters, it ran an investigative series from 2016 to 2018 about the sale of body parts in the United States. During the investigation, former workers at the funeral home claimed that Hess and Koch “conducted unauthorized dismemberments of bodies.” The FBI raided the business just weeks after the report was published in 2018.

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Judge Christine Arguello for the U.S. District Court of Colorado reportedly described it as “the most emotionally draining case I have ever experienced on the bench.” She ordered Hess and Koch to be sent to prison immediately. Hess’ 20-year term was the maximum allowed under law, Reuters added.

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