Usually Bill Hood uses the lab at Colorado Mesa University for analyzing rocks. The drawers of samples for projects on Mancos shale and analyzing selenium levels give visitors a clue as to what the geologist works on with students in Wubben Hall Room 152.
But the X-ray fluorescence spectrometer, used for detecting the elements in a sample material, is getting used for a slightly different purpose these days.
It's still being used to detect levels of iron, potassium, phosphorous, calcium and other elements. But this time, the samples aren't geological. They're all from families who had their loved ones' remains taken care of by a Montrose funeral home currently under investigation by the FBI.
The business operated as a body-parts broker, crematory and funeral home under one roof, which was allowed in Colorado until a recent change in state law. The establishment is suspected of giving families the wrong cremains, substituting dry cement for cremains, embalming bodies without permission and other illegal practices, leading the state to suspend its license to operate. The business owner later agreed to surrender her license.
Sunset Mesa shut down in February after the FBI searched the business. While the investigation is ongoing, hundreds of families who used the funeral home for their relatives are in limbo, wondering if they have their loved ones' cremains or something else.
The public response to the investigation was so overwhelming that the FBI established a dedicated email address, directing potential victims to fill out a survey and screening their responses. Then last month, staff and students connected with CMU's forensics, criminal justice, biology and social work programs held two days of appointments with families who had contacted the FBI wanting their cremains tested to see if they were human.
Melissa Connor, professor of forensic anthropology and the director of CMU's Forensic Investigations Research Center, headed up the project to support those connected with the case.
"We're here to assist families that the FBI will not be providing answers to," she said, noting that students and staff see their role as part of a humanitarian project to help those connected with the situation. "(The FBI's) focus is on the legal proceedings, their focus is not necessarily on making sure everybody has the answers."
Connor said while she isn't expecting most of the samples brought to CMU to be involved in the criminal case, students were taught best practices in maintaining a chain of custody with evidence and other procedures that would be used in a criminal investigation. FBI agents were available for families that wanted to give information or had questions beyond what CMU representatives could answer.
Some family members who brought cremains samples carried them in their original urns, in boxes or grocery bags, and each one of them was met by a student who respectfully took the container to obtain a sample, assigning an ID number to it, taking a photo of the container and recording the information associated with it.
Students performed a physical analysis of the samples, sifting them, running magnets over them and extracting items like zipper teeth, looking for anything unusual or items that could be used to potentially identify a body that was cremated. Professors said the experience their students gained is invaluable. Having the chance to interact with a real-world situation, help people who really need it and develop empathy was important for students considering jobs in these fields.
"They kind of forget the dead person's not the only victim," Connor said. "They need to bridge the gap between 'I want to be on CSI' and 'these are real victims.' "
"We need to remember these were real people with families," said Gabrielle Lopez, a CMU student majoring in biology, who helped accept cremains samples and catalogue them. Lopez is interested in a career in crime-scene investigation after she completes her degree.
Pamela Lozano, a senior majoring in social work, said she valued interacting with families who expressed grief in different ways, through sadness or even humor in this uncomfortable situation. She learned that sometimes just being there for someone, sitting next to them and sharing the moment is what's needed.
"There were times when I had to just sit there for two minutes straight, in silence, which was hard," she said. "There were other times when they would just tell me all about their loved one and their life story."
Students were able to experience a wide range of emotions and connect with those who are struggling with what may have happened to their loved ones. They discovered what it's like to listen and be there for families.
"They took their loved ones to this trusted place, and then it came into question," said Lisa Rickerd Mills, CMU adjunct professor of social work. "Hopefully we can help mend that."
Sunset Mesa, licensed to conduct business in Colorado in 2010, marketed its services using words like "integrity."
"At a time when personalized, professional service and respect is of the utmost importance, let our family take care of your family," Hess wrote on the company's website, which is no longer operational. "We'll be here when you need us."
Mills said feelings of guilt, anger and sadness are to be expected in this situation, where those who had already grieved their loved ones' deaths have had the emotion resurface in the uncertainty introduced by the allegations.
"They're experiencing another trauma," said Mills. "It's wounds that were re-opened."
Mills and her students focused on providing emotional support to family members during the appointments and gave them information on grief counseling programs they could consult as they process the ongoing situation with the Sunset Mesa investigation. Altogether, about 20 students helped gather samples and information, support families and communicate what could be answered with the analysis.
Mills said many of the family members she encountered are envisioning their loved ones with body parts missing. Many are frustrated, confused, angry and upset, and that might last a long time, even after the investigation is over. "But the underlying feeling is still loss," she said. "They do feel betrayed and they feel they let their loved one down."
At this point, those involved in the project at CMU are focused on helping the individuals who are struggling with the unknowns after Sunset Mesa came under scrutiny, and on being a trusted source for help.
"Having families come to a place where they felt safe and comfortable was smart for the FBI," said Mills. "We take this as seriously as they do."
Unfortunately, some of the questions families and friends have are not answerable, no matter how many tests are conducted. Because DNA is most often destroyed at the high temperatures used for cremation, it's highly unlikely that any of the samples received would be candidates for DNA analysis that would identify a particular individual, Connor said.
"We cannot tell them that this is your loved one," she said.
For 84-year-old widow Elaine Babcock of Montrose, that's OK.
"I just want to know if it's human," she said. "It's going to give me a sense of closure to know that." Babcock's husband, Rick, died in 2015, and she said she chose to use Sunset Mesa at the suggestion of a hospice nurse who helped care for him at the end of his life, who advised her the funeral home was cheaper than other options in town. Though the family planned on scattering his ashes at Anvil Points, she kept them in a closet and brought them for testing at the university, and hopes to know the answer soon.
Hood is expecting to process more than 100 samples, as more than 100 appointments were made at CMU with families who contacted the FBI. With each sample, he has a goal of determining if the elements and minerals in the sample are consistent with bone ash or likely to be something entirely different.
"We were told they found kitty litter, cement and tile grout in the basement of the funeral home," said Hood, an adjunct professor who has worked in some capacity at the university for 22 years.
His method involves analyzing the elements in each sample and comparing those against the ratios of elements found in those substances, as well as with known ratios provided by human bone ash and a sample from a cremated dog. A high ratio of silica might indicate kitty litter could be a closer match than bone ash, for example.
As each sample is analyzed, Hood tracks the ratios of each element and flags it if it seems suspicious. If the sample is flagged, a second analysis is performed with an X-ray defractometer, which will indicate the minerals present and provide further information.
In the lab, Hood's lab assistant, Brianna Trump, a geology major, helps prepare samples and keep track of them during testing in an assembly line, returning the gray powder to each container as it is processed and recorded. Though she may be paid a small amount for her work as his assistant and feels honored to help with the project, Hood, like many others at CMU, is volunteering to do the work.
"We hope that this brings closure to some people," Hood said. "If we do find some that are not human, then we hope there's justice."