Funeral home operator, mother sentenced in body sales case
GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. (KKCO/Gray News) - The mastermind behind the Sunset Mesa body-brokering scandal that rocked the quiet Colorado town of Montrose was sentenced Tuesday.
Megan Hess, who pleaded guilty in July 2022, was sentenced Tuesday morning to 20 years in prison. Hess’s mother and co-conspirator, Shirley Koch, received a lighter sentence of 15 years in prison.
This case is unlike any seen in the U.S. before, with the only case remotely similar occurring in Washington state, authorities said. “This case falls outside the heartland of any other case in the United States,” said the judge.
The scheme began in 2010, when Hess and her mother, Shirley Koch, created Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors and sold bodies and parts for research for eight years, regardless of the family’s wishes. According to court documents, Hess used cheap rates to attract and exploit low-income patrons to ensure an uninterrupted flow of body parts to sell.
Families who asked for cremation would often be given cremains that didn’t belong to their loved ones, or were given outright fakes. In the handful of cases where families agreed to scientific donation of the body, Hess and Koch would sell far more of the body than what the family consented to.
More than two and a half hours of victim statements filled with emotions dominated the courtroom Tuesday, with many victims breaking into tears and anger as they spoke.
“When the FBI shut down your business, I went to your home and hugged you. And you said, ‘Oh honey, they don’t know what they’re talking about.’ I hugged you, and I prayed for you,” said one victim. “You hurt not only me, but our community. Montrose trusted you. I sent so many people to you, and you betrayed them.”
Hundreds of bodies were harvested and sent across the world, with destinations reportedly ranging from Fort Collins to Saudi Arabia.
Another witness said, “We will never know the final resting place of our mom. We will never know what happened to her. Is she on display somewhere? Is she in a medical waste bin somewhere? Was she chopped up like an old car?”
Many of the victims expressed the similar feelings of betrayal and loss. “We don’t know who was in that box, only that it wasn’t her. It felt like we lost her again,” said a victim.
“How was my mother’s body treated? Was it crushed? Buried in a decomposition bin? I don’t want to bring up the horror, but that’s what we, the survivors, have to deal with,” said another.
The FBI, Denver Division, issued the following statement after the sentencing: “These two women preyed on vulnerable victims who turned to them in a time of grief and sadness. But instead of offering guidance, these greedy women betrayed the trust of hundreds of victims and mutilated their loved ones. Without knowledge or consent, the women disrespected the wishes of the grieving victims and degraded the bodies of their family members to sell them for profit. These two criminals continued in their atrocities for years, showing no remorse or contrition even after they were exposed. Nothing can guarantee solace for the victims or repair the damage done, but perhaps this sentence can mark the end of a horrible chapter in their lives.”
Both women were remanded at the end of the court session and were ordered to pay restitution, though the amount will be determined on March 6 because the large amount of money and victims.
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