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Amid FBI investigation, state closes case on Montrose funeral home

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  • 10 min to read

Before Harold Cressler died in 2015, he told his family he wanted his body donated to science, in the hopes he could help provide a cure for the lung cancer that took his life.

The former uranium miner from Nucla felt good about having his body used for cancer research and he didn't want to be buried in the family plot, said his daughter, Judy Williams of Grand Junction. But now the family wonders what, in fact, happened to the 84-year-old man's body.

At the time, Williams said the family was told her dad's body was going to be picked up by a company, that it could be gone for up to two years, and that cremains would be returned to the family eventually. The whole situation seemed a little suspicious to her.

Forty-five days after Cressler's death, her stepmother received cremains from Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors, after complaining about errors on his death certificate to the owner, Megan Hess.

When the family asked what happened to Cressler's body, they were told the corpse never left the Montrose funeral home.

"'I did my own research,' is what she said," Williams said of Hess.

Family members were confused and angry that Cressler wasn't sent to a university and never reached a cancer research institution. They wondered what sort of experiments had been performed.

The signed agreement with Hess' Donor Services, Inc., a nonprofit corporation associated with Sunset Mesa, classified his body as a "donated gift" that could be used for educational, scientific or medical purposes "both domestically and internationally." Sunset Mesa had advertised a $195 cremation in the past where families were told they would not receive returned cremains, but Williams said she doesn't believe her family paid Hess at all for handling her father's body.

Months after Cressler's death, Williams filed a complaint with the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies. She filed the complaint in April 2016 after reading a story in The Daily Sentinel about Hess' management of another Montrose funeral home that accumulated more than 100 containers of cremains in its basement from people who died and never had their final wishes carried out.

"Megan Hess took possession of our beloved Harold Cressler and treated his 95-pound body like a science experiment," Williams wrote in the letter to the state agency. "There wasn't much left of Dad after cancer ravaged his body but skin and bones. We believe that Hess may have harvested his skin and bones for her own profit."

Williams got busy with the problems of the living, instead of the dead, and she feared nothing would ever come of the situation. The only response she received from the state indicated her complaint had been sent to the attorney general, but she never heard anything more from DORA.

Now, Williams is one of hundreds of loved ones watching and waiting to see what comes of an FBI investigation involving Hess and Sunset Mesa. The funeral home shut down after agents used a federal search warrant in February and the state suspended the business' license to operate. Public records indicate Sunset Mesa is suspected of shoddy record-keeping, mixing up cremains or giving families dry concrete instead of cremains, embalming and cremating bodies without proper documentation or permission, and not being honest with families about what would happen to their loved ones' remains.

Though Williams said she never heard back from DORA, it seems the agency used her complaint to form its case for suspending Sunset Mesa's license to operate a funeral home and crematory permanently. Hess signed an order finalizing the suspension last week.

"In December 2015, respondent took possession of decedent HC," the document said. "Respondent agreed to transport the body of decedent HC to a cancer research facility to be used for scientific research, per the family's wishes. Respondent cremated decedent HC without first transporting his body to a cancer research center for scientific research."

The more Williams learns about the situation, the more she feels her fears were confirmed. But there are still so many unanswered questions for her and other family members who used Sunset Mesa's services and trusted Hess and her family to care for their loved ones' final arrangements.

"It feels like my dad was murdered after he died," she said. "I know where his soul is, but I want to know where his body is."

...

The agreement signed by Hess ends the state's disciplinary proceedings involving the funeral home and crematory, though the FBI's criminal investigation continues.

In the final order, the state stipulated conditions that Hess agreed to — she permanently relinquished the registration to operate Sunset Mesa and agreed to never submit another application for any funeral establishment or crematory for which she is the designee.

Hess, though, never was the designee for Sunset Mesa, according to the state. She left a man named Greg Huffer, a former business partner and owner of the funeral home building, as the designee for the license with the state.

Though Hess had a right to a hearing, representation from an attorney in that hearing, and to defend herself and present evidence refuting the accusations and cross-examine witnesses that would have testified on behalf of the state, she waived those rights.

Hess said the attorney general's office prepared the agreement, and "there was no need to proceed with a hearing when I did not intend on reopening," she wrote an email to the Sentinel.

She said the agreement only says she can't be the designee of another funeral home or crematory, and that there are no employment or ownership restrictions, meaning she could still work for another funeral home or start a new one.

The end to the state's disciplinary actions provides little comfort to families involved, including the children of Raymond Hutt, who died in September 2016 at age 96.

"I kind of wish there had been more consequences," said Hutt's daughter, Janet, when told of the resolution.

The state agency used a complaint submitted by the Hutt family in suspending Sunset Mesa's license in February. They reported he was embalmed without their permission only hours after his death.

Family members said they found dealing with Sunset Mesa bizarre and unprofessional. They said Hess didn't provide a price list for services or caskets and dodged questions about options that were clearly cheaper. They were also perplexed by the behavior of Shirley Koch, Hess' mother, who described in intricate detail the embalming process when they visited the funeral home to make arrangements the morning after he died.

"She just kept going on and on about how good Dad's veins were," said Lanah Hutt, Janet's sister. "It was crazy."

When family members confronted Hess about embalming Hutt without their permission, which is illegal, she got angry with them but conceded she wouldn't charge them for it — under one condition.

"She said if we opened the casket she would charge us full price," Janet said.

And so, they didn't open it. They proceeded with the funeral, agreeing to hire Hess to transport family from the funeral home to the cemetery for graveside services.

Family members said the funeral didn't go well. They accused Hess of retaliating against them for the embalming incident.

They suspect Hess sabotaged the sound system, ruining the music for the memorial service. They recounted running after her as she drove away from the cemetery in her limousine, leaving funeral attendees stranded at the cemetery and not fulfilling her agreement to transport mourners.

Now, the Hutt sisters wonder what is in their dad's casket after all, given the investigation and Koch's remarks about the condition of his circulatory system.

The Hutts said they would give permission to have his body exhumed if it helps the investigation, but no one has asked.

The behavior they reported about Shirley Koch isn't surprising, according to a third party who was connected with Sunset Mesa who asked to not be named.

Hess employed her parents at the funeral business. Her mother handled the back room where embalming and body-parts dissection took place, and her father, Alan, helped with cremation.

Orders were received for specific body parts nearly daily, sometimes for a dozen heads, 18 wrists or a torso with a head attached. At one time Sunset Mesa received orders from a company in Arizona, and later on another one in Michigan, the source said.

When dealing with families, Hess often characterized body donation as a humanitarian effort, rather than a moneymaking harvesting scheme.

"She always said we were cremating miracles," the person said. "That was her tagline. Those body parts could be used for research to create cures for things."

Koch delighted in learning new techniques for dissecting bodies and separating parts for orders, and found YouTube to be particularly helpful when she was having trouble extracting a spine from a cadaver.

Because not many families specified they wanted to do viewings at memorials, it's possible that bodies that were buried in caskets also had parts harvested from them without permission, the person said. Those who worked at the funeral home had a practice of asking families if their dead family members had said they wanted to be organ donors, asking for copies of drivers' licenses with the heart symbol on them to justify they wanted their bodies donated.

"Megan thought she was bulletproof," according to the source. "She just had this big, crazy ego. At first, I thought it was that she really felt like she was doing good, but then it became this whole body parts thing and it just became more about money."

...

More questions than answers exist for those who had loved ones taken care of since Sunset Mesa opened in Montrose in 2010.

Many people are angry, frustrated and overwhelmed with a resurgence of grief, as if their loved one died all over again. And some are furious to see Hess continuing to do business in town as the investigation continues.

Recent incidents indicate some locals have reached a boiling point, including an altercation with a man at the Montrose County Fair last month.

There was an incident in March, in which Hess was ticketed for a traffic offense after she allegedly chased two women who had come to the funeral home to confront her about cremains. According to Montrose Police Cmdr. Gene Lillard, Hess chased the women off the property, followed them into town, blocked their vehicle and bumped one of them with her car, causing bruising.

Hess has continued to operate several of her businesses, including Signature Events and a catering company called PF Franks, named after her daughter's one-eyed stuffed animal. She's also hosted wine and cheesecake events at her home in Montrose and started a cupcake business called Truffles & Company, which offers a flavor called "death by chocolate."

When she set up two booths at the fair, the McCarthy family was furious. Hess handled funeral arrangements for David McCarthy, a disabled veteran who died after having a heart attack at age 46 on Father's Day last year.

One of McCarthy's sons, Zachary, arrived at the fair and recorded Hess at her booth, sitting in a chair where he had a clear view and remarking to onlookers about the ongoing investigation and the allegations, protesting the fair's decision to allow her to do business.

A video posted on social media shows law enforcement arrived and he was escorted from the area after the incident.

"Let's just say she chopped up my dad and sold him instead of giving us anything," he said to spectators drawn to the scene. "Montrose thinks this is nothing."

"I have a right to support my family," Hess responded when asked about the incident.

McCarthy's widow, Danielle, declined to comment on what happened at the fair, but said the family is frustrated with a lack of response from the community and shocked that Hess can continue to do business in plain sight.

"Why are we not getting any support from the community?" she said. "There are families that are suffering and the deafness of the community in response to this is not OK."

McCarthy said nothing weird happened when they used Sunset Mesa for her husband's arrangements, but she filled out FBI paperwork after the raid on the funeral home as a precaution. She said the FBI later contacted the family, asked for DNA samples from her four sons and told them they believed they had found body parts that were her husband's.

While she's trying to be patient with the FBI's investigation and wait for an outcome, she's upset by the lack of response from the community she's lived in for the past seven years.

"If you know someone is a victim, step up and start talking to them," she said. "We need to have the community wrap around these families."

...

The FBI will not comment on the ongoing investigation, how many people are involved or possible charges that could stem from the inquiry. But it's clear the effects of the allegations have been far-reaching, and that Colorado provided a regulatory environment that allowed Hess to broker body parts under the same roof as her funeral business and didn't require her to be licensed as a mortician or funeral home operator besides the business license from DORA.

The Sunset Mesa investigation spurred a change in state law making it illegal for businesses like Hess' to use a funeral home as a body-parts broker.

The Human Remains Disposition Sale Business Act was signed by the governor after being sponsored by two Montrose Republicans, making it illegal for someone to own a funeral home or crematory while also owning an interest in a non-transplant tissue bank. The bill also requires non-transplant tissue banks to register with DORA as funeral homes and crematories are required to do and keep detailed records of the donated bodies and track where those remains end up. There are also requirements for the business to "handle human remains in a safe and sanitary manner" and not "commingle unidentified or unharvested human remains."

Records must be kept on-site for at least three years. Establishments must also notify donors or their families that human remains may be distributed and the business will be compensated.

This change in state law is a small comfort to those who still don't know what happened to their loved ones. Some have already signed up to be represented by a Denver personal injury law firm, Burg Simpson, which currently has clients involved in an Arizona case stemming from another federal investigation into body parts brokering by Arthur and Elizabeth Rathburn.

A 2016 federal indictment alleged the couple rented infected body parts for medical and dental training, used unsanitary methods for harvesting, storing and transporting body parts and concealed that bodies had tested positive for diseases including hepatitis and HIV. The indictment alleged heads were transported in coolers and plastic bags and leaked bodily fluids, which Arthur Rathburn told investigators was mouthwash.

Ultimately, federal prosecutors pursued charges related to wire fraud and transporting hazardous materials. Elizabeth, who divorced Arthur, pleaded guilty to fraud and received probation. Arthur was convicted by a jury and sentenced to nine years in federal prison, according to the Department of Justice.

One family has already filed a civil suit against Sunset Mesa in Montrose County District Court, alleging Hess gave them the wrong cremains and sold their loved one's body parts.

But it's too soon for that, said attorney Michael Burg. He said he's asking clients who have signed up to have his firm represent them on a contingency basis to be patient.

"We're not going to file until we at least can get what we can from the FBI and get enough information on­ —­ ­­­­­no pun intended —­ where the bodies are buried," Burg said.

"We're investigating it ourselves and getting documents and getting what we can through our own sources."

Burg said it's too early to tell what a possible court case or charges could involve, though they could include fraud, racketeering and conspiracy.

"It's a hard case but we believe it's an important case to go after them," he said. "We may not get a dime out of them but we're going to fight like heck to find their assets."

He invites anyone who might like to join a potential lawsuit to contact his firm, but said he's clear about not getting anyone's hopes up if they agree to be represented.

"We tell them, number one, that we could be successful in a lawsuit and get no money," he said. "But we're going to pursue it because you people have been wronged."

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story stated that Hess launched a line of spices. She, in fact, announced on social media that she would be carrying them but is not the owner of the company.

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