Class-action lawsuit alleges Western Slope funeral home maintained network for sale of dead body parts
MONTROSE — A class-action lawsuit filed this week alleges a Montrose funeral home and its owner worked with a network of conspirators who helped provide a ready supply of bodies to broker their dismembered parts, selling them to companies eager to get a discount on heads, legs, arms and other body parts.
Sixty plaintiffs involved in the suit, filed by attorneys with Denver-based Burg Simpson law firm, have accused Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors owner Megan Hess; her parents, Shirley and Alan Koch; Montrose County Coroner Thomas Canfield; and a wide array of other individuals, businesses and health care providers of being part of a scheme that promised cremation and burial of bodies but instead profited from selling the bodies in parts or whole here in the U.S. and internationally. In all but seven of the cases involved in the lawsuit, FBI agents contacted the plaintiffs to inform them that their investigation showed their loved ones’ body parts had been sold by Hess. In the remainder of the cases, the families had cremains tested and received results indicating they were not human.
The 66-page complaint, which asks for a jury trial, accuses Hess and her network of alleged providers of predatory behavior in taking advantage of families during the worst times in their lives — after the death of loved ones. The defendants named are accused of helping to traffic illegally obtained bodies, procuring them for profit or turning a blind eye to the dark dealings.
Some of the families didn’t hire Sunset Mesa to handle final arrangements, yet the funeral home still acquired their bodies.
“The bereaved are preyed upon, the deceased are desecrated, and grieving families are left shocked, outraged, betrayed and without peace or knowledge of what has become of their loved ones,” the complaint said.
The suit alleges in several cases that families were defrauded when they declined to donate body parts and were later informed by FBI investigators that Hess had sold specific body parts to various companies instead of cremating the remains. She allegedly did so through a nonprofit corporation she operated under the same roof called Donor Services.
“Instead, 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,” the lawsuit said. “After this crude dissection, the deceased’s head, legs, arms, pelvis, torso or whole-body would then be prepared for sale by Hess’ father, Alan Koch, and shipped for profit to companies including M.D. Global, LLC, Southwest Institute of Bio-Advancement, Innoved Institute, LLC, Axogen Corporation, The American Plastination Company, Robarts Research Institute and currently unknown (other defendants).”
The lawsuit claims these companies, which preserve body parts for specimens or use them for research purposes, should have known they couldn’t have been legally obtained because the body parts didn’t come with proper documentation and were a fraction of the cost of the going market rate.
“Donor Services’ price list offered torsos for $1,000, a pelvis (with upper legs) for $1,200, heads for $500, $250 for a knee and $125 for a foot,” the lawsuit said. “These prices advertised by Hess and Donor Services were arrestingly below market prices.”
By comparison, attorneys cited prices charged by a Biological Resource Center, an Arizona company where 10 tons of body parts were found when it was raided by the FBI in 2014. The company reportedly charged three times as much for a torso as Sunset Mesa’s price list — $3,191.
Even with selling the parts at discounted rates, Hess reportedly made a tidy profit. The lawsuit alleges she bragged to others that she was making $40,000 a month selling body parts. Shirley Koch, meanwhile, claimed the family paid for a trip to Disneyland by selling gold teeth from cadavers, according to the suit.
The body parts buyers named in the suit were identified by the FBI, according to the complaint. It seems some family members perused their online catalogues after receiving the news and found a grisly surprise.
“In some cases, plaintiffs have been able to go online and find pictures of their loved ones’ plastinated cadavers being offered for rent or sale,” the lawsuit said.
Other individuals, organizations or businesses named in the suit include:
■ HopeWest hospice or its employees, which some families said arranged for Sunset Mesa to pick up family members’ bodies without consultation. In one case, a woman said Hess arrived to pick up her mother’s body at HopeWest in Montrose within minutes of her mother’s death, which she hadn’t arranged. The woman was later notified by the FBI that her mother was never cremated, what they scattered in Ireland wasn’t her, and that Sunset had sold her mother’s body to a company in Saudi Arabia.
■ Montrose County Coroner Thomas Canfield, who is accused of arranging for Hess to transport bodies, thus ensuring she had an advantage by contacting families first and also arranging for bodies to be transported to Sunset Mesa without consent. The lawsuit claims Canfield gave Sunset Mesa increased business over the years and somehow profited from this arrangement.
■ Retriever Freight Services, a Grand Junction company which provided international transport of whole bodies on at least one occasion.
“Retriever knew or should have known that the bodies and body parts being shipped by Sunset Mesa were being trafficked without legally required Willed Body Donation forms,” the lawsuit said.
In a previous interview, a representative of Retriever said a body was transported for Sunset Mesa to Turkey via transportation it arranged with Lufthansa airlines. Alan Koch is also accused of transporting bodies through his own transportation business.
■ Mesa Funeral Services, a Grand Junction funeral home that contracted with Sunset Mesa for cremation. In one case, the FBI informed two daughters that their parents bodies weren’t cremated — that their father’s heart and eyes were sold to American Plastination for rent. Their mother’s body was sold to an unknown buyer.
■ David Haisman and his business, Four Corners Cremation & Burial Society. Haisman operated a funeral business in Cortez which used Sunset Mesa for cremation, transporting the bodies more than 150 miles away over Red Mountain Pass. One family said Haisman conducted a suspicious business deal in which he insisted they pay cash for the cremains, which he delivered to them in the Sunset Mesa parking lot. The family later had the cremains tested and found they were not human. They were informed by the FBI that their father was dismembered and had his body parts sold to Innoved, Robarts Research Institute and Axogen.
Haisman previously operated a funeral home in New Mexico and had his license revoked in 2012 by a state board that ruled he acted with fraud in attempting to procure a license, gross negligence or incompetence and unprofessional or dishonorable conduct, according to state records. Haisman obtained his license to operate in Colorado using Sunset Mesa’s address in Montrose in 2010, according to state records.
The class-action suit is the fourth lawsuit brought against the funeral home and Hess, though it is the first to name others accused of being part of the body-brokering scheme. The FBI investigation continues and no criminal charges have been filed at this time.