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A former Colorado funeral home operator pleaded guilty this week to stealing and selling human remains and body parts that were intended for cremation, federal prosecutors said.
Megan Hess, 45, admitted to a single count of mail fraud and aiding and abetting, the Department of Justice announced in a press release on Tuesday. Hess, who operated Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors in Montrose, Colorado, along with her mother, Shirley Koch, were first indicted in 2020.
Between 2010 and 2018, Hess engaged in a scheme to illegally sell body parts and human corpses without the consent of deceased people's grieving families, who had entrusted her funeral parlor with the remains of their loved ones, according to a copy of this week’s plea agreement.
Prosecutors suspect the corpse trafficking plot stretches back to 2009, when Hess first organized Sunset Mesa Funeral Foundation, d/b/a Donor Services, a non-profit corporation that acted as a body broker service and operated out of the funeral home.
The purpose of the non-profit body broker was to “harvest human remains — such as heads, torsos, arms, legs, and entire human bodies — and market them for sale to customers who used the remains for scientific, medical or educational purposes,” plea documents stated.
The organization purportedly “provided assistance to community members who have no resources for funeral/cremation services.” Prosecutors say, however, Hess and Koch frequently met with families seeking cremation for deceased relatives, often charging around $1,000 and up for cremation services.
“Indeed, the income derived from Donor Services allowed the defendant to advertise rates for cremations that typically made SMFD the least expensive option in the area. As a result, the defendant was able to ensure a constantly supply of bodies for her scheme.”
Hess and Koch promised to deliver the cremains back to the victims’ families, but, since many of the cremations they were contracted to perform never occurred, neither did the return of people's loved ones remains, officials said.
“Hess and Koch also delivered cremains to families with the representation that the cremains were that of the deceased when, frequently, that was not the case,” the Department of Justice previously said.
Instead, federal investigators say Hess and Koch routinely harvested body parts and prepared entire corpses for the purposes of being sold through their body broker service.
Hess and Koch allegedly also routinely never obtained — and in some cases never even requested — authorization from the family to harvest remains for donation.
“In at least dozens of instances, Hess and Koch did not follow family wishes, and neither discussed nor obtained authorization for Donor Services to transfer decedents’ bodies or body parts to third parties,” the Department of Justice added.
In a small number of cases, decedents’ families agreed to donation after agreeing to terms laid out by Hess and Koch which prosecutors allege were fraudulent. In those instances, the Colorado funeral home “exceeded” the authorization they’d received, misleading victims into believing they’d be extracting small tissue samples, including tumors and portions of skin to be “taken for testing or research,” from their deceased loved one.
In total, federal investigators identified 560 victims whose bodies or body parts were stolen, according to court documents. Hess ultimately received more than $1.2 million in compensation for their remains over the course of a decade, according to prosecutors.
Hess’ sentencing hearing is now expected for January, according to DOJ spokesperson Deborah Takahara. She faces a possible maximum sentence of 20 years behind bars.
Koch, who initially pleaded not guilty, has a change of plea hearing set for July 12, according to additional court filings obtained by Oxygen.com.
Daniel Shaffer, Hess’ defense lawyer, and Koch’s attorney, Martha Eskesen, were both unavailable when contacted for comment on Thursday.
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