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Funeral home body part sales prompt changes

Erin Smith said her mother's heart, liver, shoulders, knees, feet, and hands were sold without her knowledge.

MONTROSE, Colo. — When funeral directors Megan Hess and Shirley Koch were sentenced after admitting to illegally selling body parts from the Sunset Mesa Funeral Home in Montrose, Erin Smith said that she felt relief and sadness.

"I thought I would sleep great last night and I didn't," Smith said.

On Tuesday, Hess was sentenced to 20 years and Koch was sentenced to 15 years after pleading guilty to a federal mail fraud charge. The plea agreement states that Hess and Koch illegally mailed body parts from hundreds of victims to so-called "body brokers". 

"My mom passed away in 2011 suddenly of cancer," Smith said.

Smith brought the body of Marianne Hamilton to Sunset Mesa Funeral Home to be cremated. Smith said in 2018, the FBI contacted her about allegations that Hess and Koch actually sold her mother's body parts instead.

"It was like she died all over again," Smith said. "This whole thing has been worse than losing our mother."

Smith said the two funeral directors sold a list of her mother's body parts unbeknownst to her.

"Essentially stealing and selling our mom’s heart, her liver, her shoulders, her knees, her feet with ankles attached and her hands with wrists attached," Smith said. "It's clear there needs to be more protections."

Republican state representative Matt Soper from Delta agrees. 

"Funeral directors in Colorado I believe are the only ones out of all the states that are not regulated with a license," Soper said.

After learning about the ongoing investigation at Sunset Mesa, Soper sponsored bills to make abusing a corpse a felony and another bill stating that funeral directors cannot deny state regulators inspections when a complaint is filed. Both bills became law, but Soper said more work is needed.

"Certainly what needs to happen is there needs to continuing education not just in mortuary science, but there needs to be continuing education in mortuary ethics," Soper said.

Soper said federal laws need to be made stronger to crack down on these illegal "body broker" businesses which are mostly located overseas.

"Those are the ones that we definitely need to go after and that’s something that only the federal government can do because these bodies were shipped across international borders," Soper said. 

Joe Walsh is a funeral director and president of the Funeral Directors Association.

"The hope is that by these rules and law changes, we can avoid anything else that might happen like Sunset Mesa," Walsh said.

Walsh agrees that more changes need to be made.

"It is my belief that if you are an ethical and honorable funeral director and funeral home owner you're going to do the right thing and the laws don't bother you," Walsh said. "They shouldn't bother you because you are doing the right thing."

For the sake her mother and the hundreds of other victims, Smith said this issue is far from over.

"In many ways for me personally, it feels a little bit like the healing begins now," Smith said. "But, we are really hoping that there can some movement toward more protections and more effective change in our communities and in our state going forward."

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