DENVER (CN) – When Harold Cressler’s family received their loved one’s cremated remains back from Sunset Mesa Funeral Home in 2015, they knew something was wrong.
According to a lawsuit the family filed this past September, the ashes contained “tooth caps, shattered glass, wire, pieces of metal possibly part of an earring, rivets from jeans, a snap from a Wrangler western shirt, [and] the inlay of a Swiss Army knife,” all objects that had not been on Cressler when his surviving children and wife delivered his body to the funeral parlor.
After an extensive investigation into this and dozens of similar cases, federal prosecutors on Tuesday charged the owners of the Sunset Mesa Funeral Home in Montrose, Colorado, on suspicion of illegally brokering the body parts of deceased individuals they were hired to cremate.
The funeral home’s owners, Megan Hess, 43, and her mother Shirley Koch, 66, were advised of their rights virtually by a U.S. Magistrate Judge in Grand Junction.
“The defendants are charged with committing a blatant fraud on many, many victims. This betrays a fundamental trust during one of the worst times in a person’s life – having to make arrangements for a deceased loved one,” said U.S. Attorney Jason Dunn in a statement. “It is hard to imagine the pain and worry of those who used Sunset Mesa and not knowing what happened to their loved ones’ remains.”
According to an 11-page indictment, under the nonprofit Sunset Mesa Funeral Foundation Inc. and doing business as Donor Services, Hess harvested and sold human remains, including “heads, torsos, arms, legs or entire human bodies, to customers who used the remains for scientific, medical, or educational purposes.”
Incentivized with the offer of free or reduced cremation costs, some families consented to the sale of specific organs or tumors. According to the indictment, few families consented or knew the extent to which Hess and Koch were selling and profiting off their deceased loved ones.
Some families even paid $1,000 for cremation services that federal prosecutors say never occurred.
The scheme was so profitable, “the income derived from the body broker services business allowed Hess to advertise rates for cremations that often made Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors the least expensive option in the area,” the indictment says.
Between 2010 and 2018, when the state shut down the funeral home, Sunset Mesa reaped in hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Hess and Koch each face 18 counts of frauds and swindles, as well as six counts of mail fraud and two counts of shipping hazardous materials, including HIV-positive remains. Each count of mail fraud carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in federal prison and a maximum fine of $250,000.
A press release from the U.S. Department of Justice promised to hold a meeting for the victims to answer their questions.
Dozens of mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, children and extended family members have filed seven lawsuits against the company since 2018.