(CN) — For nearly a decade, the Sunset Mesa Funeral Home in Montrose, Colorado, sold off the body parts of deceased loved ones brought in for cremation and memorial services. And on Tuesday, a federal judge sentenced the funeral home’s director, Megan Hess, to 20 years in prison on charges of mail fraud and aiding and abetting.
Hess' mother Shirley Koch, who prepared bodies for sale, will spend 15 years in prison on identical charges.
“I can barely believe we are here for a mail fraud charge because their crime is so heinous we barely have charges for it,” said Erin Smith, whose deceased mother was one of hundreds sold by the funeral home owners between 2010 and 2018.
The 11-page indictment identified six shipments of "fraudulently obtained remains" in support of the charges. Incomplete records mean most of the victims' families will never know what became of the loved ones brought to the funeral home for cremation.
Throughout the afternoon, family members of the dismembered deceased recalled the trauma Hess and Koch’s actions caused, denying dignity to the dead and robbing families of the opportunity to scatter ashes or gather around an urn. Several recalled being plagued by nightmares of their family members being cut up and sold off.
Hess, 46, and Koch, 69, initially pleaded not guilty to 18 counts of fraud and swindles, as well as six counts of mail fraud and two counts of shipping hazardous materials, including HIV-positive remains.
Hess and Koch each pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud and aiding and abetting this past July.
“The only thing I know for sure is that being a victim of these crimes has been worse than the death of our mother,” Smith said, joined by her brother in court. The siblings lost their mother less than a month after she was diagnosed with cancer.
Under the nonprofit Sunset Mesa Funeral Foundation Inc. and doing business as Donor Services, Hess harvested and sold human remains, according to the 11-page indictment, 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 said.
Businesses that bought the body parts told federal investigators they were unaware of nefarious sourcing, according to court testimony.
An FBI investigation calculated victim losses at $1.2 million. The court declined to subtract the funeral home’s expenses for catering and urns as requested by the defense.
Dozens of mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, children and extended family members have filed civil lawsuits against the company since 2018. Five of the civil suits resulted in default judgment. Two of the judgments were sealed by the court, but those made public amounted to $8.7 million — and has not been paid.
Two civil cases were stayed in the Montrose County court pending the outcome of the federal criminal trial.
"With white collar crimes, the sentencing guidelines is usually not adequate," said Senior U.S. District Judge Christine M. Arguello, appointed by George W. Bush. "Unfortunately in this case the guidelines do not address moral and ethical violations."
Arguello shared her personal experience with grief after losing her husband of 45 years in 2018 and held a moment of silence for the victims.
“I find myself in uncharted waters. This case falls outside the scope of any other in the United States,” Arguello said while considering the sentence. “At face value this is a financial crime, a mail fraud case. Though it didn’t financially ruin anyone, it caused great emotional trauma.”
The hearing was held in a packed courtroom at the Wayne Aspinall Courthouse in Grand Junction. Dozens of others sat in an overflow room and appeared via video and phone.
Victims recalled the loss of their loved ones and uncertainty at what had become of the bodies. Some spoke of trying to forgive the funeral directors while others told the judge that 20 years in prison was too lenient.
In Hess’ defense, Grand Junction-based attorney Ashley Marie Petrey asked the court to consider the good she provided to medical schools.
“Ms. Hess did not kill anyone,” Petrey argued. “It’s unfortunate that family members said they would never have another holiday with their loved ones, but it’s important to draw a line, and remember Ms. Hess’ actions had nothing to do with that.”
Hess declined to address the court, but her mother offered some words for the families.
“I acknowledge my guilt and take responsibility for my actions, I am very sorry for the harm I caused you and your families," Koch said. "My motivation was that without donation there is no research and without research there is not cure."
A restitution hearing will be held in March.
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