U.S. News

Colorado funeral home operators indicted for illegally selling body parts

DENVER (Reuters) - The operators of a Colorado funeral home whose side business of selling body parts without consent was exposed by a Reuters investigative report in 2018 were charged on Tuesday with fraud and illegally transporting diseased cadavers.

FILE PHOTO: Shirley Hollenback, wife of Gerald "Cactus" Hollenback, whose husband's ashes were lost by Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors poses with his Marine Corps bomber jacket in her home in Montrose, Colorado, U.S., December 16, 2017. Picture taken December 16, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking - RC1BE4FB90B0/File Photo

The owner of Sunset Mesa Funeral Home, Megan Hess, 43, and her mother Shirley Koch, 66, who was an employee, were arrested by the FBI on Tuesday following the unsealing of a grand jury indictment, U.S. Attorney Jason Dunn said in a statement.

According to the indictment, between 2010 and 2018, the defendants offered cremation services from their Montrose, Colorado funeral home for $1,000 or more with the promise of returning the remains to the dead persons’ families.

Instead, the funeral home illegally sold body parts, or whole bodies, without the permission to at least a dozen of the families, the indictment alleges.

In at least one instance, the purported remains of a person turned out to be concrete, federal authorities said.

Hess and Koch appeared before a federal magistrate judge in Grand Junction, Colorado on Tuesday. It was not immediately clear if they have retained legal counsel.

Selling organs such as hearts, kidneys and tendons for transplant is illegal. But no federal law governs the sale of cadavers or body parts for use in research or education. Few state laws provide any oversight whatsoever, and almost anyone, regardless of expertise, can dissect and sell human body parts.

Federal prosecutors charged the pair with selling and shipping bodies of people infected with hepatitis and HIV after falsely certifying to buyers that the remains were disease-free.

Dunn said that the defendants engaged in a “blatant fraud” of dozens of 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,” he said. “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.”

An investigative series by Reuters uncovered the unusual arrangement of a funeral home business also operating as a body part broker after former workers told the news agency about the questionable practices at the facility, including the dismembering of bodies.

Following the Reuters reports, the FBI raided the business, and state regulators shuttered the funeral home and crematory in early 2018.

If convicted, both could face several years in prison, under federal sentencing guidelines.

Reporting by Keith Coffman; Additional reporting by John Shiffman; Editing by Bill Tarrant