After her daughter pleaded guilty last week to mail fraud, 69-year-old Shirley Koch did the same in court on Tuesday, according to a Daily Sentinel report.
Koch and her 43-year-old daughter, Megan Hess, who run the Sunset Mesa Funeral Home in Montrose, Colorado, are accused of forging documents, giving families ashes that weren’t those of their loved ones, taking payments for cremations that never happened, and of selling body parts to third parties for research without consent from families, according to a 2020 statement by the Department of Justice (DOJ).
Since Koch pleaded guilty, eight other charges against her will be dropped, the Daily Sentinel reports.
The plea agreement estimates her sentence to be 63-78 months, a small fraction of the potential 20 year sentence mail fraud could otherwise carry, the Daily Sentinel says.
The prosecution and defense disagree on what Hess’s sentence may look; the prosecution says it could be 151-188 months, while the defense estimates 21-27 months, the Daily Sentinel says.
Hess founded Sunset Mesa Funeral Foundation (SMFF) in May 2009, with the purpose of providing “assistance to community members who have no resources for funeral/cremation services,” according to a 2020 indictment.
Also in May 2009, Hess created a trade name called “Donor Services” within SMFF, the indictment says.
“Donor Services’ primary source of income was harvesting and marketing for sale purportedly donated human remains, such as heads, torsos, arms, legs, or entire human bodies, to customers who used the remains for scientific, medical, or educational purposes,” the indictment reads.
Hess operated Donor Services out of the same location as the funeral home, named Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors (SMFD), which she operated until Feb. 6, 2018, the indictment explains. Hess dealt with most aspects of SMFD and Donor Services, which meant meeting with families, discussing “the disposition of the deceased”, and making funeral arrangements, the indictment says.
Hess also handled advertising, invoicing, shipping arrangements, and purchasers of human remains for Donor Services, according to the indictment.
Koch assisted with meetings with families to discuss funeral arrangements, along with “processing and preparing bodies for body broker services,” says the indictment.
It should have been a service that provided low income options for funerals and cremations services, but it soon became something much more nefarious, according to the indictment.
Back Door Body Sales
The plot to scam families following the deaths of loved ones came to fruition sometime in 2010, when the two women decided to take money and property from their clients, while turning an already devastating period of life into a heartbreaking betrayal, the indictment says.
Hess and Koch met with families who sought out cremation services for deceased loved ones, where the mother and daughter duo assured the families that they would cremate the deceased and return the remains, the indictment says.
They failed to discuss or obtain consent to donate bodies or body parts for any reason, and in other instances, the offer of a body broker service was rejected by the families, the indictment says. Despite this, Hess and Koch allegedly “harvested body parts from, or otherwise prepared entire bodies of, hundreds of decedents for body broker services,” the indictment says.
The families who did agree to donation were under the impression that small samples of tissue, skin, or tumors, would be taken, the indictment says. Some families were led to believe by Koch and Hess that “donated remains would be used to treat living recipients,” the indictment alleges.
The body broker services elicited enough income to create a marketing budget big enough to keep attracting families in need of low-income cremation and funeral options — and it kept a steady supply of bodies for Donor Services, the indictment says. Koch and Hess also offered “free or reduced rate cremations to incentivize families to agree to donation of their loved ones’ remains,” the indictment says.
When families received what they believed were their loved ones’ remains, this was often not the case, since the entire body was often sold via Donor Services, the indictment says. Hess and Koch charged the families upwards of $1000 for cremations they had never completed, and the remains would contain those of another person, the indictment says.
Hess and Koch are also accused of forging “Donor Authorization” forms, faking signatures from families to make it appear they had consent to sell the bodies or body parts, even though such consent never happened, the indictment alleges. Hundreds of other cases had no such form at all, according to the indictment.
The women even went as far as to scam those they sold the bodies and body parts to, the indictment claims. Donor Services customers required the remains to be free from certain diseases like HIV and Hepatitis, but Koch and Hess “frequently sent these customers altered laboratory reports indicating the remains tested negative” when they actually hadn’t, the indictment says.
Despite Department of Transportation regulations, the women shipped remains from people had tested positive for, or died from, infectious disease, sending them through mail or on commercial air flights, the indictment says.
Hess and Koch made hundreds of thousands of dollars off their scams in the eight years they ran the funeral home, according to Courthouse News.
“He was murdered after he died”
Denise Henning sought out cremation services for her mother through the funeral home, according to the Daily Sentinel.
“We paid $2,000 for my dear mother’s cremation. They took our money, gave us a box of who knows what ashes, and sold her body out the back door within 24 hours,” Henning told the Sentinel.
Judy Cressler said Koch and Hess sold her father’s body to a plastination company in Saudi Arabia, and the ashes her family received contained someone else’s remains mixed with burned trash, the Daily Sentinel says.
“It felt like he was murdered after he died. Megan Hess and Shirley Koch burned trash along with these people because they believed they were trash,” Cressler said to the court, the Daily Sentinel says.
Harold Cressler, Judy’s father, died in December 2015, and had wanted his body to be donated to science, says Courthouse News. What they claim they got in return was a box that held “tooth caps, shattered glass, wire, rivets from jeans, a snap from a Wrangler shirt, among other debris,” according to Courthouse News.
In a prepared statement, Koch admitted to committing fraud during the time she worked with her daughter at the funeral home, the Daily Sentinel says.
“Your honor, I worked for my daughter at Sunset Mesa Funeral Director for years and take full responsibility for my actions, the specifics of what I did are in the written plea agreement I signed,” Koch said when the judge asked her what she was pleading guilty to, says Courthouse News.
Still, victims feel as though the women aren’t taking full responsibility for their actions, the Daily Sentinel reported.
“I would like to hear Ms. Hess admit what she has done instead of a jury finding her guilty,” Debra Schum said after Hess’s July 5 hearing, the Daily Sentinel says.
Both women face up to 20 years of prison time on each mail fraud count, and up to five years in prison for each transportation of hazardous materials count, with a possible additional $250,000 fine if convicted, according to the DOJ statement.
A sentencing hearing has been set for Nov. 7, says the Daily Sentinel.
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