In recent months, not one, but two lawsuits have been filed over Sunset Mesa, a Montrose funeral home that was allegedly also operating a body brokerage, where human body parts were sold for a variety of purposes without the knowledge or permission of the deceased's loved ones.
Typical of those affected is Bobby Espionza, who learned as part of an FBI investigation that his late father's arms, legs and head had been cut off and shipped to different locations across the country.
Sunset Mesa owner Megan Hess has not responded to interview requests from Westword, and the body broker business remains mired in secrecy. But one person is willing to draw back the veil on the shadowy profession.
His name is Philip Guyett, and he was once among the nation's most successful body brokers. In 2005, he notes, "I started the only U.S. implant recycling business, named Universal Containers USA. I held contracts from the three largest corporate funeral home providers in the U.S. and Canada. ... I had over 400 crematories under contract. I was making over $45,000 a month in recycled cobalt and titanium. I was also making an average of $30,000 a month in recycled dental gold."
This empire fell apart in March 2009, after Guyett pleaded guilty to mail fraud, with prosecutors saying he'd falsified medical records so that he could harvest human tissue from cadavers and sell it for transplants — though, as you'll see, his explanation is different. Nonetheless, he was sentenced to eight years in prison, and his time in stir gave him plenty of time to write Head, Shoulders, Knees & Bones, a book about his activities.
Today Guyett is a free man, and he claims producers have been shopping his story for a possible movie or TV series. But while waiting to see if any filmmakers are actually willing to pony up some dough, he eagerly offers a guided tour of a life that took a strange and disturbing turn into death.
Back in the 1990s, Guyett recalls, "I injured my back when I was working as a land surveyor and was told I couldn't go back to that line of work. I had a few options of what I could do, and one of them was go through a medical assistant/medical technologist-type program." With this background, he was able to connect with the Riverside County coroner's office, which had a reserve unit of "people to draw on to fill positions temporarily — like if there was a plane crash or some type of disaster."
Through this side hustle (his main gig was working at a methadone clinic), Guyett "started to get experience in the medical examiner's back room, where they checked in the bodies and did the autopsies." About six months later, he parlayed this knowledge into a gig as the director of what was called the "willed body program" at Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, California.
According to him, "The school was looking for somebody who wasn't afraid of cadavers or dead people. The program was kind of nonexistent, and the school was purchasing all its cadavers from other universities, the University of Denver being one of them. So I ended up getting that job, and within two years, I turned the program into being self-sufficient, where we were getting an average of 100 donors a year — but we really only needed about 75 of them. So that's how I got into the business."
Guyett subsequently founded a company he dubbed IDK; the initials stood for "I Don't Know" because, he says, "I couldn't think of a name." In what he refers to as his work on "the private side," he reveals, "I would work with different companies that held workshops and other medical schools that were doing research in education — like they were doing something in regard to plastic surgery and needed heads. They couldn't draw from their own willed body program, so they had to have an independent buyer just like anyone else."
As his business grew, Guyett rebranded as Donor Referral Services and moved to Las Vegas. "I used to ship full extremities," he reveals. "I would use these large, 100-quart coolers, because you can tie them up. That way, if they fall off a truck, they don't lose any of their integrity." The boxes were lined with Styrofoam "like they use for shipping salmon. But one of the boxes that was being FedExed to Missouri broke. There was nothing illegal about it, but it opened up everyone's eyes about how much stuff gets shipped by FedEx — and it got me in the paper."
In the meantime, Guyett shifted into transplant donations, which he calls "my biggest mistake — because I was unprepared for the federal regulations. It's kind of, 'Do what you want until something happens, and then ignorance is no excuse.'"
At first, with loose oversight, "tissue banks didn't care where they got the bodies from. It was more about how much you had to pay the funeral home to use the facility, how much you had to pay the transport guy for the referral. And I don't know how much that's changed."
He references one company "that would supply those big freezers like you buy at Sears to funeral homes, and as they got donors accepted, they'd put the extremities, the heads, the torsos, etc., in the freezer. When it was filled, they'd pick it up and bring back a new freezer."
For his own operation, Guyett insists that the releases he had the loved ones of potential donors sign were filled with specifics about what kinds of research would be done on the bodies, adding, "If I ever had a family that wanted the ashes back right away, I would do a limited recovery to make sure they did. Other places would take everything, and the only ashes the family was going to get back were maybe the ribs."
If he was so careful, how did Guyett run afoul of the law? "I didn't go to prison for running an illegal business or anything having to do with body- or tissue-donation," he emphasizes. "I had changed some paperwork because of a problem that it caused for myself."
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
The trouble involved a deal in North Carolina with "a couple of tissue banks that were accepting donors that had cancer, as long as they didn't have bone cancer or something like that. I had five donors that were older donors — and this company made a product that could be used for older donors, like dental paste. We had an agreement that once I got a certain number of donors, we'd ship them at the same time — but then they got bought out and their criteria changed, and I was left with these five donors I couldn't do anything with."
When he was based in California or Nevada, he continues, "I could have cremated the tissue as medical waste. But in Carolina, I couldn't do that. I had to contact the family. So it was easier on my end to send the donors to the tissue bank and put Wite-Out over the cause of death. I was accused of forging death certificates, but I never did anything with them. We had worksheets that we filled out and the funeral home filled out later. I assumed they were going to be caught in the screening process, and I think they assumed I had already screened them. And when they got kicked back later on, everyone stopped being friends. I also owed a lot of money at that time, so my thinking wasn't clear. But essentially, I went to prison for Wite-Out."
Now that he's out, Guyett is philosophical about his former line of work. He feels that most of the companies purchasing body parts are doing so for legitimate reasons, albeit ones that might make family members uncomfortable — like car manufacturers acquiring human heads for seat-belt testing. The weirdest request he can recall was "this group out of Indiana that trained search-and-rescue dogs. They asked from time to time if we had different large-size samples of different organs — bone, hair, any of that stuff — because when they call out these dogs, they're trained to identity different types of tissue, muscle and skin. But I always did my due diligence. I made sure the places that wanted this stuff were real."
Such matters are now a part of Guyett's past. These days, he's working construction in California while waiting for his probation to expire this September. After that, he says, "the world is my oyster."