GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. (CN) — No amount of money can replace the loss of a loved one under normal circumstances, much less when the cremation you paid for never took place.
A federal judge on Monday ordered two Colorado women who sold body parts out of their Western Slope funeral home to pay $436,000 to families who were told their loved ones had been cremated or buried.
That amounts to an average of $1,300 to each of 331 victims identified, roughly the cost of the funeral services that were never provided.
Megan Hess, the director of Sunset Mesa Funeral Home in Montrose, Colorado, and her mother Shirley Koch were each sentenced to 20 years in prison in January on charges of mail fraud.
Citing daunting transportation, the women declined to appear in court for Monday’s restitution hearing, which was held at the Wayne Aspinall Courthouse in Grand Junction. Hess and Koch instead appeared by video.
Starting in May 2009, Hess operated the Sunset Mesa Funeral Foundation, under the guise of being a “charitable, religious, educational and scientific” endeavor helping “community members who have no resources for funeral/cremation services,” according to the indictment. The foundation fed Donor Services, a business which generated income from harvesting and marketing “purportedly donated human remains, such as heads, torsos, arms, legs, or entire human bodies, to customers who used the remains for scientific, medical or educational purposes.”
Hess arranged the funerals and made the body sales. Her mother processed and prepared the bodies for sale.
“In many cases, the defendants did not obtain consent and then sold those body parts, or received consent and lied about what happened to the bodies,” said Senior U.S. District Judge Christine Arguello, a George W. Bush appointee. “In most cases the next of kin are the ones the defendants lied to in order to propagate their scheme.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation tracked some remains as far as the United Arab Emirates. Others were likely plasticized for museums and medical students.
“The illegal and reprehensible actions of the funeral home operators have caused immeasurable harm to the families of the victims. Today's restitution order serves as a vital step towards providing some measure of justice for those who have been so deeply affected by this heinous crime,” said U.S. Attorney Cole Finegan. “We hope this brings closure and healing to those who have suffered tremendous loss.”
The story captured the interest of people near and far.
"It’s relatable to everyone, we all have loved ones who have died, and we will die one day, and it’s a strange crime because there isn’t anything you can do to protect yourself,” said Jess Littman, an Los Angeles-based documentary film director who attended the hearing. “It drives a very unique kind of fear.”
In 2020, the Colorado Legislature passed a bill, signed by Governor Jared Polis, making it a class 6 felony to commit offenses against a deceased human body.
Because there wasn't exactly a law banning the sale of bodies meant for burial, federal attorneys initially charged Hess and Koch with 18 counts of frauds and swindles, six counts of mail fraud and two counts of shipping hazardous materials —referring to bodies that were HIV-positive. Each mail fraud count carried a maximum penalty of 20 years in federal prison and a maximum fine of $250,000.
In the end, Hess and Koch each pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud each and received the maximum penalty.
“I can barely believe we are here for a mail fraud charge because their crime is so heinous we barely have charges for it,” Erin Smith, whose mother was one of hundreds sold by the funeral home between 2010 and 2018, said at sentencing.
With a growing population of 20,000, Montrose sits west of the Rocky Mountains, 60 miles south of Grand Junction. Though Sunset Mesa has closed, it will be years before people forget the name.
“I brought my dog, Maggie, there in 2017,” said Cheryl S., who asked that her last name not be used. “Megan said ‘let me take it to the back,’ and she gave me a little heart-shaped locket with ashes in it. I assume they’re her ashes, but I don’t really know.”
The federal government seized two properties worth about $536,000 according to Zillow, and a 2011 GMC Yukon. While that may cover the cost of restitution in the criminal case, more than $8.7 million in civil judgments remain outstanding.
Dozens of mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, children and extended family members have filed civil lawsuits against the company since 2018.
“We hope the criminal case will allow some level of closure in the sense that Megan Hess and Shirley Koch would have been held responsible for the heinous actions that they committed,” said Keith Killian, an attorney in Grand Junction representing more than two dozen next of kin in a civil complaint.
“Hopefully, there will be some closure on the issue, as far as the desire to make them be responsible for their transgressions,"' Killian said. "As far as the civil case is concerned, I think it helped that my clients were be able to tell the judge, one at a time, what happened and to hear me advocate for them."
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.