“We came today to witness the sound of the handcuffs locking,” stated Erin Smith, who transported her mother’s deceased body to Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors in Montrose following her passing in 2011. Seven years later, the FBI notified her family that her mother was not cremated as initially believed, but rather dismembered and unlawfully traded for financial gain.
U.S. District Judge Christine M. Arguello sentenced Hess, 46, to the maximum allowable of 20 years in prison for her involvement in a scheme that lasted almost a decade, where body parts were sold without the permission of grieving families from the Western Slope. Hess’s mother, Koch, 69, was given a sentence of 15 years.
The American industry broker body, largely unregulated, drew attention and shined a light on the gruesome details of the case, which authorities say included more than 500 victims. Unlike any other business in the country, the investigation following the raid of Mesa Sunset funeral home in February 2018 brought a close to a five-year legal odyssey, culminating in an emotional daylong hearing.
Arguello, who lost her husband after 45 years, shared personal anecdotes of her own grief on Tuesday, saying that both defendants ignored advisory guidelines, calling their offense heinous and beyond the scope of uncharted waters.
The judge said, “This case falls outside the heartland of any other cases in the United States, emotionally draining her and handling it on time.”
During the FBI’s “Market Morbid Operation” investigation, Coloradans from Mesa Sunset who had used urns to contain the ashes of their loved ones were horrified to learn that federal agents had tracked and ultimately discovered that Koch and Hess had sold body parts and hundreds of bodies to places as far away as Saudi Arabia over the course of several years.
The assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Neff stated that this is not technically a violent crime, but rather a heinous and dastardly crime.
“A quiet expression of appreciation”
Dozens of detailed families of those before Tuesday, the court experienced unfathomable anguish. An unending cycle of anger and grief. Loss of trust. Post-traumatic stress disorder. Nightmares.
“When Megan captured my mother’s affection,” Nancy Overhoff stated, “she shattered mine.”
Hess and Koch were charged in March 2020 by a federal grand jury. They were indicted with six charges of mail fraud and three charges of illegal transportation of hazardous materials.
Hess gently nodded her head in response to Arguello’s inquiry about whether she had any remarks. As she made her way towards the podium, she delicately dried her tears. Throughout Tuesday’s proceedings, Hess remained seated with a drooping posture, frequently gazing downwards.
Koch, prior to receiving her sentence, expressed remorse to the mourning families, stating that her sole drive was medical investigation.
She stated, “I admit my wrongdoing and accept accountability for my deeds.” “I deeply regret the damage I inflicted upon you and your loved ones.”
However, all the victims pleaded with the judge to impose the maximum permissible sentence.
In 2017, Danielle McCarthy lost her husband David, Day’s father. After several months, an agent from Mesa Sunset called her to inform that David’s cremains were not in the box. They had been shipped to Detroit in pieces and sold.
When the judge declared Hess’ verdict on Tuesday, McCarthy covered her mouth and wept.
“It was genuinely a quiet cry of appreciation,” she expressed outside the courthouse, embracing individuals she encountered through their mutual sorrow.
Koch and Hess each pleaded guilty to one count of fraud earlier this year. According to Hess’ plea agreement, the pair stole body parts from at least 222 victims, which investigators have determined to be almost certainly linked to another 338 cases.
In some cases where forged documentation is involved, the government discovered instances of individuals selling bodies infected with diseases like HIV and hepatitis without the consent of the daughter and mother who were selling these bodies.
During Tuesday’s hearing, FBI agent John Busch testified that families had the potential to contribute organs in order to restore sight to the visually impaired or enable mobility for those who are unable to walk by receiving a new spinal cord. Busch further stated that Hess utilized logos and slogans from Denver-based organ and tissue company, Donor Alliance Inc., To deceptively promote his own agenda.
In actuality, Sunset Mesa was not able to legally provide these services.
In a court filing submitted in March, the attorney representing Hess stated that Koch, during two interviews conducted with law enforcement in February 2018, informed federal investigators that Hess was the mastermind behind the operation. Additionally, Koch disclosed that the funeral home failed to maintain accurate records and that the cremated remains were combined due to the perceived difficulty of keeping them separate.
According to a transcript of an interview included in Koch’s reply to Hess’ motion, “She handled the business aspect,” Koch informed an FBI agent. “I mainly focused on the labor aspect.”
The judgments in those cases have amounted to millions of dollars. Families, who filed seven lawsuits against Hess and Koch, claimed that they were tricked and swindled.
“Shamed and humiliated by the town’s residents”
The Mesa Sunset case in Colorado has exposed lax oversight over funeral homes and crematoriums, prompting state lawmakers to enact several changes, including harshening penalties for tempering with dead bodies, and beefing up regulators’ ability to inspect mortuaries and home funerals, effectively making it illegal for business brokers to operate simultaneously.
State Representative Matt Soper, a Republican from Montrose, watched from the courtroom as he spearheaded legislation aimed at closing loopholes in Colorado’s oversight statutes for home funerals on Tuesday.
“After the sentencing, Soper expressed that his trust in our legal system has been reinstated,”
Hess and Koch’s lawyers contended in their pre-sentencing statements that their clients’ intentions were not entirely negative, as they expressed a strong belief that “without contribution (of corpses or body components) there is no remedy.” According to the attorneys representing Hess, the funeral director at Sunset Mesa did not amass wealth from this fraudulent plan; rather, she is burdened with significant debt and relies on a car that is 16 years old.
Her attorney wrote in the filing, “Ms. Hess has been metaphorically smeared and humiliated by the local community to the fullest extent possible in the modern era.”
In a 2016 interview with Reuters, Hess stated that she sees the body’s operation parts as a public service, assisting in medical education and research.
“It’s for the benefit of the world,” she informed the news organization, “and I enjoy assisting individuals.”
In the 2018 Reuters investigation, Sunset Mesa was discovered to be running a body broker enterprise, which was unique in the country as it operated alongside a funeral home and crematory. No other similar businesses were identified by the news agency.
According to a former employee cited in a Reuters article, gold teeth were extracted from the deceased in order to pay for a vacation to Disneyland, said Koch.
It is not illegal to research and educate on the sale of body parts in the United States. However, the industry is not regulated at the federal level. Only a few states oversee the business, allowing anyone, with or without experience, to sell and dissect human body parts.
Hess and Koch, who are now in federal prison, are headed towards the end of the legal case of Mesa Sunset. Tuesday’s hearing marked the end of the case, which doesn’t bring any relief to the numerous victims.
“This is an encounter that one never truly recovers from,” expressed Chrissy Hartman. “It becomes our new standard.”