The emotion is palpable in Bobby Espinoza's voice when he talks about what was done to the body of his late father, Jerry Espinoza, after it was delivered to Sunset Mesa funeral home in Montrose.
"They cut his legs off, they cut his arms off, they cut his head off," Espinoza says. "Then they sent them to different places. And we didn't want that done."
A first-of-its-kind law passed in Colorado earlier this year in response to the scandal that erupted after Sunset Mesa's actions were made public, is supposed to prevent such abuses from taking place in the future. But Espinoza, who testified on behalf of the legislation, dubbed the Human Remains Disposition Sale Businesses Act, says another part of the state statute "has a loophole in it, where they just punish the business but they don't punish the owner. And I'm working to close that loophole."
Sunset Mesa's owner was Megan Hess, who, unbeknownst to Bobby, had been running a so-called body brokerage out of the same building as the funeral home. The side business sold parts from bodies Hess is said to have dissected with assistance from her mother, Shirley Koch. A former Sunset Mesa employee told Reuters that Koch boasted of making enough from cashing in gold she extracted from tooth fillings to take her entire family to Disneyland.
Colorado has suspended Sunset Mesa's license to operate amid the FBI investigation, which is ongoing. But in recent months, Hess told the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel that while her agreement with the state "says she can't be the designee of another funeral home or crematory...there are no employment or ownership restrictions, meaning she could still work for another funeral home or start a new one."
That's unacceptable to Bobby, who says, "After what she did, we need to make sure she can't get hired to work for another funeral home — and can't open another one."
The Human Remains Disposition Sale Businesses Act is accessible below, along with a much more shocking document — a price list from another body broker, Biological Resource Center Inc., that sheds light on the secretive practice of selling human body parts. Costs include $200 for an elbow, $400 for a whole arm and shoulder, $3,300 for a torso with head (referred to as a "cephalus"), and $5,000 for a complete cadaver.
The list was obtained by attorney Michael Burg of the Denver-based law firm Burg Simpson. After the act became law, Burg, who helped push for the bill and is currently handling a class-action suit against Sunset Mesa that Bobby has joined, explained the distinction between body brokers and firms that specialize in harvesting organs for transplant.
"Organ donation is really a good thing," he stressed. "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 companies "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."
Bobby had no idea about any of these horrors when Jerry lost a battle with lung cancer in 2014. Jerry died in Cortez, where he lived — but he hadn't wanted a business there to handle his cremation. So Jerry began seeking alternatives and settled on Sunset Mesa.
In retrospect, he realized that there were several strange aspects to the way the process was handled. His brother didn't remember getting a receipt after paying the person who drove Jerry's body to Sunset Mesa, and the entire transaction took place in the parking lot. Shortly thereafter, his son arrived at the funeral home and asked to view her father's body, but she was told the cremation process had already begun — something Bobby subsequently learned couldn't have happened that quickly for a variety of technical reasons.
He now believes that Hess and Koch were already preparing to slice off parts of Jerry's body. Today, he says he knows of three different companies across the country, including one based in Florida, that purchased the pieces.
The truth about Sunset Mesa's body brokerage began to emerge following an FBI raid in February, and when Bobby saw a TV report about it, he became concerned that the portion of his father's cremains his sister had in her possession wasn't genuine — and when he had them tested, his worst fears were realized. "They came back as not human," he recalls. "They didn't tell me what they were, but they appear to just be dirt."
Jerry had asked Bobby to spread his ashes near Lizard Head Pass, located in a beautiful part of the San Juan Mountains, and he did so along with other members of his family. However, he kept some of the cremains, and he's happy he did — because otherwise, he would never have learned about Sunset Mesa's scam. Still, he admits that "I feel like I let my father down in a way, because I promised him that's where I'd put him, and because of them, I didn't."
A cremains switch is made more difficult by the Human Remains Disposition Sale Businesses Act, which forbids a person from owning more than 10 percent indirect interest in a funeral home or crematory while simultaneously owning interest in what's termed a "non-transplant tissue bank" — i.e., a body broker. It also requires such tissue banks to register with state regulators and keep records that are available to be viewed by interested parties, among other things.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
But although Burg praised legislators for passing the bill during his earlier interview with Westword, he felt it should be stronger. In his opinion, "If you defraud someone out of their loved one's body and then you desecrate it by cutting it up, or if you commit fraud to obtain the body, we believe that should be a felony. We have numerous experts in the field who've studied this, as well as psychologists who work with our clients, and they believe people suffer from PTSD that arises from this. When they're told by these brokers that they'll treat their loved one with dignity and use the body for science only to find out later that it was kept in freezers and parts were shipped around the world really causes tremendous psychological and emotional depression."
In Burg's view, "having any kind of a law on the books is a great first step. But we believe more needs to be done. I don't care if you're a Republican, a Democrat or an independent: We all can agree that we need to protect people's loved ones from this kind of deceit."
For his part, Bobby is currently in contact with a number of state senators he hopes will sponsor new legislation to address the statutory loophole. Such a fix, he believes, will prevent Hess and others in a similar situation from working in the funeral or tissue bank industries ever again.