GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. – A former Colorado funeral home operator was sentenced to 20 years in prison on Tuesday for her role in a scheme in which prosecutors said she stole body parts and then sold them to research firms.
Megan Hess, 46, pleaded guilty in federal court in July to one count of mail fraud and charges of aiding and abetting, according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Colorado.
Hess’ mother, Shirley Koch, 69, had also admitted to charges of mail fraud and aiding and abetting as part of a plea deal, The Daily Sentinel of Grand Junction reported.
“We came today to hear the handcuffs click,” Erin Smith, who brought her mother’s body to Sunset Mesa Funeral Home in Montrose after her death in 2011, told The Denver Post. “And we got that.”
Hess and Koch were indicted by a grand jury in March 2020, according to the newspaper.
The women were accused of meeting with grieving families and saying they would provide cremation services for $1,000 or more, CNN reported. Instead of performing the cremation, prosecutors said Hess would ship the bodies and body parts from her funeral home through a second business she created to act as a “body broker service,” according to the cable news outlet.
The sentencing ended an odyssey that began five years ago when the FBI raided the funeral home a month after a Reuters investigation in January 2018.
The FBI’s investigation, called “Operation Morbid Market,” ultimately tracked hundreds of bodies and body parts sold by Hess and Koch to places as far away as Saudi Arabia, the Post reported.
During the investigation, dozens of people who contracted with Sunset Mesa learned from federal agents that their loved ones’ ashes were not in the urns in their homes, according to the newspaper.
“While technically not a violent crime, this is a heinous crime, a dastardly crime,” said Tim Neff, an assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case.
Colorado regulators shut Sunset Mesa down in February 2018, KMGH-TV reported.
According to court documents, Sunset Mesa offered low rates for funeral services as a way to supply body parts to be sold for research, The Daily Sentinel reported.
Mary Burgnar said she made arrangements for her husband’s services, using Sunset Mesa because it was the cheapest option.
“I have paid for that decision with a horror story that will be written forever,” Burgnar told The Daily Sentinel. “The rest of us, the victims, we will serve a life sentence dealing with this.”
Hess declined to address the court on Tuesday, The Daily Sentinel reported. Her attorney, Ashley Petrey, said Hess was motivated by a desire to further medical research.
“Though she lost her way, her motives were always pure and good,” Petrey told the court.
Koch agreed to address the court and acknowledged her guilt, adding that she took responsibility for her actions.
“I’m very sorry for harm I caused you and your families,” Koch said in court.
It is legal to sell human remains, according to Reuters. The news outlet’s investigation found that the body broker industry was not closely regulated in many states, according to The Washington Post. However, the federal government said that agents confirmed that hundreds of the bodies sold by Hess had been stolen because the families had not given consent for how the bodies would be used, the newspaper reported.
“When Megan stole my mom’s heart, she broke mine,” another victim, Nancy Overhoff, said in court during the sentencing hearing, the Post reported.
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