The latest lawsuit targeting Montrose's Sunset Mesa funeral home and its owner, Megan Hess, is a class-action complaint whose plaintiffs represent 64 families informed by FBI agents that their loved ones' bodies were chopped up and parted out, allegedly without their knowledge or consent, as part of a side business known as a body brokerage.
Among the horror stories contained in the complaint: Two mourning daughters had small amounts of what they'd been told was their mom's cremains tattooed onto them as a way of memorializing her, only to subsequently learn that the materials provided "were not human."
Another plaintiff, Bobby Espinoza, spoke to us last December about what was done to the remains of his late father, Jerry Espinoza, Sr. "They cut his legs off, they cut his arms off, they cut his head off," he said. "Then they sent them to different places. And we didn't want that done."
The suit, which names more than a dozen defendants, isn't the only one to target Sunset Mesa and Hess (who has not responded to Westword's interview requests) since an FBI raid on the business in February 2018. Earlier this year, a separate complaint was filed by Terri Thorsby, whose attorney, Chris Cowan, recently told us about how his client had learned about the treatment given to the body of her late mother, Mildred Carl. Shortly after Thanksgiving, Cowan noted, the family received a letter from the feds, and "that's when they learned their mother's remains had been dismembered and sold. ... Her head went to one outfit, her arms, knees, feet and pelvis went to another outfit."
Denver's Burg Simpson is handling the class-action suit, and while the attorneys in question aren't talking at present, Michael Burg, one of the firm's principals, spoke to us at length about body brokers last August for a post highlighting a new law intended to prevent abuses of the sort that Espinoza and Thorsby experienced.
Among other things, Burg drew a sharp distinction between body brokers and firms that specialize in harvesting organs for transplant.
"Organ donation is really a good thing," he said. "If someone, unfortunately, dies, if they have a heart or liver or eyes that can then be transplanted into someone who needs them, it can save their lives. But even though body brokers compare themselves to organ donation companies, they're really body snatchers — and they don't even have to dig up the bodies."
Such firms "go to hospitals and hospices and give their pitch to people when they're at their most vulnerable," he continued. "They'll think, 'My mother just died of Alzheimer's. I want her brain to help doctors learn how to prevent this terrible disease.' But what these companies really do is get the body and chop it up and sell the parts all around the country. They sell the heads, arms, legs, hips, genitalia. We have discovered that many of these bodies are sold to the Department of Defense and are blown up like crash-test dummies."
Finding out about what took place has had a terrible effect on those left behind, as is clear from the following lawsuit excerpts, which tell the stories of ten individual or collective plaintiffs. They're followed by a link to the suit.
Plaintiffs One: Jerry Espinoza Jr., Bobby Espinoza and Stephanie Tabor, surviving children of Jerry B. Espinoza Sr., deceased
Allegations: "Jerry Sr.'s body had been dismembered and sold for parts." Defendants "carved off his head and his legs from his body and severed his torso and pelvis. These parts were then sold piecemeal to three different body-buyer defendants."
Claim: "Jerry Jr. has and continues to have severe difficulty sleeping. He has suffered at work due to problems concentrating. He regularly relives the horror of what they did to his father. Stephanie also regularly experiences shock and horror when images of what occurred intrude into her thinking. As a result of these heinous actions, Plaintiffs continue to relive their father's death, are unable to finish grieving so as to attain closure, and continue to feel shattered and alternately numb or angry."
Plaintiffs Two: Mark Depeters and Nancy Zilker, surviving parents of Adam DePeters, deceased
Allegations: "In the summer of 2018, Mark and Nancy received information from FBI agent John Busch that Adam was not cremated at all. Rather, his body had been sold to unidentified entities."
Claim: "Nancy cannot stop thoughts and images of what was done to her son's body from intruding into her daily life. When that happens, she becomes physically sick."
Plaintiff Three: Katherine Bradley, surviving daughter of Helena McIver Howell, deceased
Allegations: "Instead of performing the promised cremation, [defendants] sold Helena's body to an entity in Saudi Arabia."
Claim: "Katherine continues to suffer from distress caused by [defendants'] desecration of her mother's body. She continues to be plagued by disbelief, disgust, rage, intense sorrow, guilt and depression. No matter how hard she tries to keep thoughts and memories of her mother positive, the horror and reality of what was done creeps in. Her hopes of retrieving Helena's remains, and laying her mother finally to rest, seem futile. She feels she will never be the same again."
Plaintiffs Four: Sherrel Carlson and Glenn Carlson, surviving parents of Joshua Crawford, deceased
Allegations: "FBI agents contacted Plaintiffs to inform them that the lower half of their son's body had been severed from his corpse and sold to unknown buyers."
Claim: What the defendants "did to these already distraught parents has compounded their grief and continues to consume them with anger. Instead of helping guide their grief to closure, the ceremonial urn bearing Joshua's 'cremains' is a constant reminder of the desecration of their beloved son."
Plaintiffs Five: Sandra Wilson and Denise Henning, surviving daughters of Harry and Lillian Peacock
Allegations: "Sandy Wilson was contacted by the FBI and informed that her parents' remains had never been cremated, but rather that Sunset Mesa had sold her father Harry's heart and eyes to the body broker...for rent and use by unknown body-user Does. The FBI found information that Lillian's body had been sold to an unknown buyer."
Claim: "Plaintiffs became physically sick and angry. Sandy grew detached and depressed. She continues to experience feelings of utter hopelessness and guilt for failing to protect her parents from...desecration. The anger and depression Sandy and Denise continue to experience is perpetually stoked by the fact that they can no longer visit Harry and Lillian's grave site, knowing their parents were never actually laid to rest there."
Plaintiffs Six: Sarah Miller, also known as Miss Ruthie Pettyjohn, surviving mother of Brian Jason Allen, deceased
Allegations: "The FBI informed Miss Ruthie that her son's body had never been cremated. Instead, she was informed that Brian's left hand, his right foot, his right knee and his pelvis had been cut off his body and that [defendants] had sold these body parts piecemeal.... It was also revealed that Brian's left knee to the toes and right elbow to the fingertips had been dismembered, embalmed and sold to unknown buyers."
Claim: "As a result of the emotional distress caused by her son's desecration, Miss Ruthie continues to suffer from debilitating night terrors and visions of her son being cut into pieces. She can rarely sleep more than two hours each night despite having been prescribed medication for both anxiety and insomnia. It is agonizing for Miss Ruthie to attempt to come to terms with the fact that she will never know what happened to parts of her son. She is sure she will never be the same again."
Plaintiff Seven: Fredericka Hancock, surviving spouse of Thomas Hancock, deceased
Allegations: "After the heinous scheme...became public, Freddie provided a sample of the cremains she received...to be tested at a forensic laboratory at Colorado Mesa University. The results indicate that the cremains were not Mr. Hancock's. Dental hardware including a dental bridge was found, and Thomas did not have a dental bridge.... The FBI contacted Freddie to inform her that, indeed, Thomas had not been cremated. Thomas's head had been harvested and sold. His fingers, elbows and legs had been carved off his corpse and sold."
Claim: "Freddie continues to have regular nightmares in which she sees her husband's body with his head and limbs removed. She awakes from these dreams soaked in sweat. She continues to suffer feelings of intense guilt for allowing this to happen to Thomas. The grieving process that began upon her husband's sudden death is endlessly repeated, beginning over and over again without release."
Plaintiff Eight: Janice Mahan, surviving sister of Steven Rice, deceased
Allegations: "Janice was contacted by FBI agents who informed her that her brother's head and torso had been sawed off his cadaver and sold...to unidentified buyers."
Claim: "Janice has had severe difficulty getting to sleep and continues to suffer from severe emotional distress, anger, humiliation, embarrassment, anxiety and worry. She prays that her brother's remains are able to one day be laid to rest properly, so that this nightmare may end."
Plaintiff Nine: Angela St. John, surviving daughter of Myrna Dolores Cargill, deceased
Allegations: "Myrna was a strict Christian Scientist and was vehemently opposed to any type of dismemberment or tissue donation.... However, Angie was contacted by FBI agent Chris Mazour and informed that her mother's body had not been cremated at all. In fact, the FBI had evidence that Myrna's shoulders, hands, knees, ankles and feet had been severed from her corpse and sold separately."
Claim: "Angie knows that her mother would have been absolutely horrified at the thought of her body being cut into pieces and sold off. Angie herself has had her emotional state turned upside-down. The peace she felt after having cared for her mother in her last moments was utterly destroyed. She is haunted by the memory. ... Angie has suffered and continues to suffer severe emotional distress, nervous shock, horror, grief, humiliation, anger, worry and anxiety."
Plaintiff Ten: Heather Brown, surviving daughter of Kristie Brown, deceased
Allegations: "The family agreed to donate Kristie's corneas and skin grafts. ... FBI agents, however, contacted Heather...to inform her that her mother's arms (shoulders to fingertips), legs (knees to tips of toes) and heart were carved up and sold. ... Heather received forensic testing indicating that the alleged 'cremains' provided...were not human. Heather and their sister had a small amount of the alleged 'cremains' tattooed into their skin to honor and memorialize their love for their mother, Kristie."
Claim: "Heather is still discovering ways that [defendants'] actions have traumatized her family and affected her. As a result of this ordeal, Heather and her family continue to relive the pain of their mother's passing over and over again, and are unable to finish grieving and attain peace of mind."
Click to read Jerry Epinoza Jr., et al., v. Megan Hess, et al.