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Colorado funeral home owner sentenced in body sales case

A wooden judge gavel and soundboard isolated on white background. (Provided Photo/Oana Malaeru/500px/Getty Images)

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. (AP) — A Colorado funeral home operator accused of illegally selling body parts and giving clients fake ashes was sentenced to 20 years in prison Tuesday by a federal court judge.

Megan Hess received the maximum sentence after pleading guilty to mail fraud in November under a plea agreement in which other charges against her were dropped, The Daily Sentinel reported.

U.S. authorities said that on dozens of occasions, Hess and her mother, Shirley Koch, who also pleaded guilty to mail fraud, transferred bodies or body parts to third parties for research without families’ knowledge.

U.S. District Judge Christine Arguello in Grand Junction also sentenced Koch on Tuesday to 15 years in prison. Arguello sentenced the pair after victims testified about the pain they’d suffered under the scheme.

Hess, 48, and Koch, 69, operated the Sunset Mesa Funeral Home in the western city of Montrose. They were arrested in 2020 and charged with six counts of mail fraud and three counts of illegal transportation of hazardous materials.

A grand jury indictment said that from 2010 through 2018, Hess and Koch offered to cremate bodies and provide the remains to families at a cost of $1,000 or more, but many of the cremations never occurred.

Hess created a nonprofit organization in 2009 called Sunset Mesa Funeral Foundation as a body-broker service doing business as Donor Services, authorities said.

On dozens of occasions, Hess and Koch transferred bodies or body parts to third parties for research without families’ knowledge, according to the U.S. Justice Department. The transfers were done through Sunset Mesa Funeral Foundation and Donor Services and families were given ashes that were not those of their loved ones, authorities said.

Hess and Koch also shipped bodies and body parts that tested positive for, or belonged to people who died from, infectious diseases including HIV and Hepatitis B and C, despite certifying to buyers that the remains were disease-free, authorities said.

Hess’ attorney, Ashley Petrey, told the court Tuesday Hess was motivated by a desire to advance medical research.

Assistant Unites States Attorney Tim Neff scoffed at the argument.

“Eight years of repeated conduct of this nature is all the court needs to know about her history and character,” Neff said.

Koch said during the sentencing hearing, “I acknowledge my guilt and take responsibility for my actions. I’m very sorry for harm I caused you and your families.”

Hess declined to address the court.

A victim restitution hearing was scheduled for March.