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Mother charged with brokering body parts from funeral home pleads guilty to mail fraud

Shirley Koch and daughter Megan Hess faced charges related to selling body parts from deceased individuals brought to Hess' Sunset Mesa Funeral Home.

DENVER (CN) — A woman charged with brokering body parts out of her daughter’s funeral home in Montrose, Colorado, pleaded guilty Tuesday to charges of mail fraud and aiding and abetting.

In March 2020, federal prosecutors charged the owners of the Sunset Mesa Funeral Home on suspicion of illegally brokering the body parts of the individuals they were hired to cremate.

The funeral home’s owners, Megan Hess, 46, and her mother Shirley 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 pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud and aiding and abetting on July 5. Both Hess and Koch face maximum sentences of 20 years imprisonment and fines up to $250,000.

While some victims expressed relief at seeing an end to the years-long proceedings, several victims asked U.S. Attorney Jeremy Chaffin to relay their opposition to the plea agreement. U.S. Magistrate Judge Gordon Gallagher rejected the notion of denying the change of plea, since the court would determine the actual sentence, and did not have to honor either parties’ request for a reduced sentence.

U.S. District Judge Christine M. Arguello, appointed by George W. Bush, will determine sentences for Hess and Koch at another date.

The victims included Harold Cressler, who died in December 2015 and had wanted his body to be donated to science. When his family was presented with a box containing tooth caps, shattered glass, wire, rivets from jeans, a snap from a Wrangler western shirt, among other debris, his daughter Judy knew something was wrong.  

“To me, it felt like he had been murdered after he died,” Judy Cressler told the court. “My father’s body was neither donated nor cremated, but sold to a company in Saudi Arabia.”

“Hess and Koch burned trash with human remains because to them bodies that couldn’t be sold were trash,” Cressler said.

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 said.

Asked by Judge Gallagher what she was pleading guilty to, Koch directed the court to her plea agreement.

“Your honor, I worked for my daughter at Sunset Mesa Funeral Director for years and take full responsibility for my actions, the specifics of what I did are in the written plea agreement I signed,” Koch said.

Between 2010 and 2018, when the state shut down the funeral home, Sunset Mesa reaped in hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Dozens of mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, children and extended family members have filed seven lawsuits against the company since 2018.

Denver attorney Martha Eskesen represented Koch in court.

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