One Year Later: The raid on Sunset Mesa

MONTROSE, Colo. (KKCO/KJCT)-- It's been one year since the FBI raid on Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors in Montrose.

This week, more than 60 people have filed a class action lawsuit against the funeral home, using the Englewood based law firm Burg Simpson Eldredge Hersh & Jardine, P.C.

The almost 70-page document outlines the ‘criminal enterprise and civil conspiracy of persons and entities engaged in facilitating and profiting from a heinous fraud committed upon bereaved families’.

We're taking a look at what we know so far, and what else is to come.

We’ve spoken with several victims of Sunset Mesa over the last year, all with a different, yet similar story. Terri Reid is one of those victims. She lives just outside of Delta in Cory, Colorado.

"She picked him up at 7 o'clock that evening and had his body sold and shipped out whole before 8 a.m. that next morning, the FBI has the records,” said Terri Reid.

Reid says almost half of the Cherry Acres mobile home park has used Sunset Mesa for their loved ones. When Terri's husband died of cancer, she dealt with Megan Hess’s mom, Shirley Koch who also worked at Sunset Mesa.

“They were supposed to do a donation to science and whatever was left we would have cremated and we were going to be buried together….I talked with the FBI agent and that's when he told me that those were not my husband's remains and that he had been shipped, whole body, and my world went upside down,” said Reid.

Terri is just one of hundreds who used Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors.

The most recent class-action lawsuit filed Monday involves more than 60 plaintiffs. They are seeking damages for emotional distress, fraud, negligence, civil conspiracy, unjust enrichment, outrageous conduct, negligence per se, aiding and abetting, Colorado Consumer Protection Act, and Colorado Organized Crime Control Act.

The defendants listed are as follows, Megan Hess, Peyton Hess Trust, Sunset Mesa Funeral Foundation, Inc. Shirley and Alan Koch (Megan’s parents), Retriever Freight Services, LLC, Montrose County Coroner Thomas Canfield, Montrose County Commissioners, David Haisman, Four Coroners Cremation & Burial Society, HopeWest, Nielson GJ Investments, LLC, M.D. Global, LLC, Southwest Institute of Bio-Advancement, Inoved Institute, LLC, Axogen Corporation, American Plastination Company, Robarts Research Institute, 20 Does, and 9 Body-user Does.

"Well, the FBI insists that there will be multiple arrests,” said Deb Schum, Sunset Mesa Victim.

Deb Schum is another victim from Hotchkiss. We first spoke with her last year in regards to her friend Lora who the FBI has told her was sold without consent before she could make arrangements.

The Burg Simpson lawsuit accuses Megan Hess and the Montrose County Coroner Thomas Canfield of working together to sell body parts illegally.

The lawsuit states “on information and belief, Canfield participated in, aided and abetted, knew or should have known that an ongoing conspiracy was taking place to fraudulently acquire and illegally traffic bodies and body-parts at the Sunset Mesa Funeral Home.”

The Montrose County Coroner is accused of knowing about the conspiracy and was helping to traffic bodies. In May 2016 Canfield and his office were informed that Hess had been providing fake ashes yet the office continued to use Sunset Mesa. When we contacted the county Wednesday they said quote "at this time neither the coroner nor county has been served."

The lawsuit alleges Canfield set a policy requiring local hospitals and hospice clinics to alert the coroner in every instance of death.

The lawsuit continues “Canfield set this policy requiring the involvement of the Coroner’s Office in every instance of death so that he could ensure a steady supply of bodies to Hess and Sunset Mesa.” It continues to say in some plaintiffs cases “Canfield arranged for their loved-ones bodies to be transferred to Sunset Mesa without their consent and before even seeking their direction.”

According to the FBI, some victims did not sign a donation consent form which means selling their body parts is illegal. Colorado’s Revised Uniform Anatomical Gift Act requires that donations of bodies and body-parts be memorialized in a signed document. In the Plaintiff's cases “there were no willed body donations consent forms.”

"It’s gross, it's grotesque. I mean, these were people that we cared about and now they're body parts,” said Schum.

The complaint accuses Hess and her providers of taking advantage of families, saying the family members left behind were "preyed upon".

"Sometimes there were bodies in the kitchen area where they ate and they may or may not have been covered. They may or may not have been there for a long time…there was the fact that they kept bodies in the freezer with the flowers that they did for the funerals. I felt that that was disrespectful,” said a former employee we spoke with in February 2018, she would like to remain anonymous.

The complaint asks for a jury trial. It alleges “Hess took their cadavers to a back room at the funeral parlor where her mother Shirley Koch would dismember their corpses using a power saw, stack the pieces in coolers and, when there wasn’t enough room, in the back of a flower refrigerator.”

Hess’s body broker business called Donor Services also operated under the same roof as the funeral home. They offered body parts below the market price according to the lawsuit.

Donor Services price list offered torsos for $1,000, heads for $500, $125 for a foot, and $5.893 for whole bodies.

Even while selling at discounted prices Hess reportedly bragged to her employees that she was making upwards of $40,000 a month selling body parts. Her mother Shirley claimed to pay for trips to Disney by selling gold teeth according to the suit.

The lawsuit also alleges the whole body or parts would be prepared for sale by Hess’s father Alan Koch and shipped for profit to several companies including American Plastination Company, who when we reached out last year said they hadn’t been in touch with the FBI and that they would consider themselves victims too. They said in an email quote "If American Plastination Company were to have received a verified donation that turned out to be an illegal donation, that would be a crime of fraud with ripple effect…the victims of this crime would be the survivors, as well as APC.”

"Share our little crumbs with each other so we can try to figure out what’s going on and we can share our trauma with each other and it's been very helpful and it's also overwhelming…I’m coming to terms with the fact that I may not be able to ever recover Lora’s body,” said Schum.

For now, victims like Deb Schum and Terri Reid will have to wait some more as we continue to wait for the FBI to release the details of their investigation.

"This has been extremely difficult there’s so little information and it is taking a long, long time,” said Schum.

"We trust at the end that those people are going to take care of us properly we don't think that they are going to do this or that or even think to ask those questions you know but the hardest right now is just waiting, we wait,” said Reid.

We reached out to the FBI who says they are continuing their investigation partnering with the state. Both have no new info to report at this time. No responses have been filed to the suit as of Wednesday afternoon.



 
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