Coroner, buyers should have known Colorado funeral home wrongly sold body parts, lawsuit claims

Coroner, buyers should have known Colorado funeral home wrongly sold body parts, lawsuit claims

A hospice service, the local coroner, transportation companies and body-buyers across the country knew or should have known that a Montrose funeral home, now under FBI investigation, was illegally selling bodies, according to a new lawsuit.

The empty Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors ...
Joe Amon, The Denver Post

The empty Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors & Donor Services building on Oct. 24, 2018, in Montrose.

The class-action suit, filed Monday in Montrose District Court by the Denver-based Berg Simpson law firm, significantly widens the scope of a case that has thus far ensnared only the former operators of the defunct Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors.

“Such conduct is atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community,” the lawsuit states.

This is the fourth lawsuit against Megan Hess, the former director, and her funeral home and body broker business, which was shut down by the state after an FBI raid in January 2018. At a minimum, dozens of families have been told by the FBI over the past six months that their loved ones were chopped up and shipped, some as far as Saudi Arabia.

But this lawsuit is the first that extends beyond the owners and operators of the business. Also named in the suit are Hess’ parents, Shirley and Alan; Montrose County Coroner Thomas Canfield; the Board of County Commissioners of Montrose County; a freight company; and a local hospice provider.

[RELATEDA Colorado funeral home owner also sold human body parts. A new bill would make that illegal.]

“Our grieving clients need answers,” David K. TeSelle, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said in a statement. “It is time for those who were responsible for this scheme, and those who benefited from it, and those who allowed this scheme to continue unchecked for years, to be held to account.”

Additionally, the suit names several “body-buyers” — the recipients of the body parts dismembered at Sunset Mesa. Dozens of the alleged victims’ families say the FBI has told them that their loves ones were sold to these companies. They include Innoved Institute, The American Plastination Company, Robarts Research Institute and M.D. Global.

The lawsuit describes in graphic detail how Hess’ operation allegedly played out.

Instead of performing cremations as agreed upon, the lawsuit contends that Hess took the bodies into the back room of the funeral home where her mother, Shirley Koch, would “dismember the corpses using a power saw, stack the pieces in coolers, and when there wasn’t enough room, in the back of a flower refrigerator.”

After the dismemberment, Hess’ father, Alan Koch, prepared the bodies for sale and shipped them for profit to the body-buyers.

None of the plaintiffs, the suit alleges, agreed to these body donations.

One company responsible for shipping body parts — Retriever Freight Services in Grand Junction — “knew or should have known” that the body parts being shipped by Sunset Mesa were being trafficked illegally, the suit alleges.

Tomas Smith, co-owner of the freight company, said he had not heard about the lawsuit until a Denver Post reporter told him Wednesday. He said his company picked up bodies or body parts from Sunset Mesa 55 times over a two and a half-year span, but that the company had no formal or financial relationship with the funeral home or the Hess family.

“We weren’t complicit,” Smith said. “We don’t know the background of the things we’re moving.”

Smith added that his company picked up the inventory for Tuscon-based Freight Services and communicated solely with them. Most of the inventory they picked up from Sunset Mesa, Smith said, was taken to the Denver airport.

The lawsuit also contends that Hess was offering body parts for well-below market rates, and that the buyers knew or should have known that they were receiving illegally trafficked bodies.

Canfield, the Montrose County coroner, was seen frequently at Sunset Mesa, the suit alleges. In 2016, the coroner’s loffice was given reliable evidence that Hess had been providing families with “cremains” that contained material other than their loved ones, according to the lawsuit. He continued to direct bodies and families to the funeral home.

In fact, the suit alleges, Canfield directed nearly all the bodies he was responsible for to Sunset Mesa in 2017. According to numbers in the lawsuit, the Montrose County Coroner’s Office received approximately 150 cases per year. Sunset Mesa in 2017 received 128 referrals.

Canfield on Wednesday declined comment, citing the ongoing litigation. He would not confirm or deny the number of bodies referred to in the lawsuit. Hess did not respond to requests for comment; she previously told The Denver Post, “Do not contact me ever again.”

HopeWest, a hospice service provider on the Western Slope, is also named in the lawsuit, alleging that the company arranged for bodies to be transferred to Sunset Mesa without families’ consent or against their express wishes.

“HopeWest does not show preference to any one funeral home or cremation service,”  said Jenny Marcus, a spokeswoman for the hospice service.

The Four Corners Cremation and Burial Society in Montrose and its owner, David Haisman, were additional defendants in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit details the personal struggles suffered by the plaintiffs as a result of the alleged crimes.

Janice Mahan was told by the FBI in July that her brother, Steven, was never cremated. Instead, his head and torso had been sawed off his cadaver and sold by Sunset Mesa.

Janice “continues to suffer from severe emotional distress, anger, humiliation, embarrassment, anxiety and worry,” the lawsuit says.

Katherine Bradley learned from the FBI in August that her mother’s body had never been cremated. Instead, she was sent to Saudi Arabia.

“She feels she will never be the same again,” the suit states.

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