Shutdown of funeral home that also runs body brokerage roils town

MONTROSE, Colorado:  After Gerald “Cactus” Hollenback died of heart disease last May, his wife contacted Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors here to have him cremated. Now, Shirley Hollenback is worried about what became of her husband’s body.

In a lawsuit filed against Sunset Mesa and its owner, Megan Hess, Hollenback alleges that the ashes she received are not from her husband, a former US Marine who died at age 81.

Instead, she fears that all or parts of Cactus Hollenback’s corpse may have been sold by a side business Hess ran from the funeral home: a so-called body broker company called Donor Services.

Hollenback is among dozens of people in this remote Rocky Mountain town concerned about what became of friends and family whose funerals or cremations were handled by Hess.

Earlier this year, a Reuters report highlighted Hess’s unusual twin business of running a funeral home and a body brokerage — a company that takes the donated dead, dismembers them and sells their body parts, typically to educators and researchers.

In the wake of the report, federal agents raided the facility, and state regulators ordered Sunset Mesa, the funeral home, to shut down.

In Colorado and most other states, operating a body broker firm is legal. But running such a business from the same facility that houses a funeral home and crematory is highly unusual. Reuters found no other operation active in America that housed a funeral home, crematory and body broker in the same place and run by the same owner.

In the order shutting down the facility indefinitely, Colorado regulators found that Hess failed to maintain required cremation records for at least five years and final disposition records of the deceased for at least seven years.

Sunset Mesa also disposed of bodies before obtaining the required permits, according to the state order.

The order also cited concerns about a case involving the ashes Hess returned to one family. Hess sent the family what she said were the cremated remains of the body. But the order said the remains were analyzed by the family and found to be concrete.

The FBI has been so overwhelmed by calls about Hess that it set up a hot line and email address ([email protected]) for people with information or concerns. It’s now distributing a questionnaire titled ‘Seeking Victim Information in Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors Investigation.’

Late last month, the agency also released a statement saying it would be testing some ashes.

“It’s tearing families apart,” said Laurie Gowen, 56, a longtime worker at a local grocery store.

Her husband co-owned the funeral home before Hess.

The scope of the Hess operation remains unclear.

A Reuters review of death notices found Sunset Mesa handled arrangements for at least 128 people in 2017, 85 in 2016 and 59 in 2015. — Reuters

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