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Colorado Funeral Home Body Brokering Scheme, Part 1

The Sunset Mesa Funeral Home loses cremated remains under mysterious circumstances

spinner image An illustration of a sign reading Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors and Donor Services with a box and cash in front of the sign.
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spinner image graphic quote that reads 'What really happened? Did they lose his body? Little did I know, the horror, the nightmare was yet to come.'
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Full Transcript

 (MUSIC INTRO)

[00:00:01] Bob: This week on The Perfect Scam.

[00:00:04] I mean we're talking about hundreds of people from that small town in Western Colorado who never knew what was really going on in that house of horrors that Megan Hess was running out of her funeral home.

[00:00:17] At it wasn't until I got home, back home, and it did, it did keep plaguing me, you know, what really happened? Did they mix up his body? Did they lose his body? Little did I know what really happened. Really the, the horror, the nightmare was yet to come.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:00:37] Bob: Welcome back to The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Bob Sullivan. It's very hard to talk about end of life issues, but it's incredibly important. We all want our final wishes respected, we all want our loved ones to receive care and respect during this incredibly sensitive time. Today's story takes on this difficult subject, but it's the kind of thing we should all try to talk more about. And this is the kind of story we can all learn from. It's about a family that endured a terrible miscarriage of those end of life wishes, but who had the courage to learn the truth and see it through putting an end to an heinous crime and preventing, perhaps, countless other tragedies. So let's get started. Meet Diana McBride, stepdaughter of a man who has a great nickname.

[00:01:32] Bob: This story has to do with a man whose name is Cactus, and I'm dying to ask you where he got the nickname.

[00:01:38] Diana McBride: So yes, the story involves my stepdad whose name is Gerald Hollenback, but most of his life he went by the name of Cactus. It was a name he got when he got out of the Marines. He was always a big, stout, kind of burly type of guy, and I think it came from, I guess his, his physique. He sort of reminded people of like one of those big saguaro cactus.

[00:02:07] Bob: (laugh) I can picture that. Um, was he also prickly like that?

[00:02:11] Diana McBride: I think too that the name probably had something to do with his personality as well.

[00:02:16] Bob: (laugh) So uh, he was in the Marines for a long time?

[00:02:20] Diana McBride: I believe it was for six years, six or more years. He served in the Korean War.

[00:02:27] Bob: Cactus was a big man with a very big personality.

[00:02:31] Diana McBride: Yes, so when we were small my mom and my dad split up and, and my mom met Cactus and started dating him. And my sister and I were very young. I think I was around 7 years old at the time. And he would do, he's a larger than life character, and he was very entertaining. And one of the things he did to entertain us girls was 'cause of course back, this was in the '60s, and people used phone books back then, he could tear a phone book in half with his bare hands.

[00:03:02] Bob: Wow. That's, I mean I've, I've heard of people doing such things, but I've not seen it in person, but it sounds like a great party trick.

[00:03:08] Diana McBride: Exactly. Yeah, so he, yeah, he, he was definitely a, a, a big guy, and very, well a man's man. He rode bulls, you know, he, he was in the rodeo circuit for a period of time, and he rode bull-riding and, you know, all, all of that.

[00:03:27] Bob: Diana grew up in California, but after she left home, her mom Shirley and Cactus eventually left for Colorado.

[00:03:35] Diana McBride: So Montrose is in the southwestern part of the state; the nearest place you fly into on commercial airlines is Grand Junction, you're familiar where Grand Junction is?

[00:03:47] Bob: Uh-huh, sure.

[00:03:47] Diana McBride: Montrose is about an hour and 15 minutes to the west of Grand Junction.

[00:03:52] Bob: That is a very remote part of America. Why did they move there?

[00:03:55] Diana McBride: Well my aunt and uncle lived in Montrose. The whole time we grew up, we would go there and visit them. It's a beautiful area, and it's very near a lot of the popular ski-type towns like Telluride and another beautiful town that it's near is Ridgeway. They call Ridgeway the Little Switzerland of the West. It's very scenic country.

[00:04:21] Bob: Very beautiful, but also very rugged, right, which I guess matches your dad.

[00:04:26] Diana McBride: It, it is rugged, and I think as my mom got older, she wanted to be closer to her sister and my step-dad's family had all passed away, so they, I guess they just decided they would, they would move there. My mom's been there now for gosh, over 30 years.

[00:04:43] Bob: When I think about that part of Colorado, I mean there's no interstate highway anywhere near it, so it takes some doing to get there.

[00:04:50] Diana McBride: It does, and I guess it's a perfect place for a person like Megan Hess to do what she was doing because it's a very remote area, very small town. The people there are, you know, small-town type mentality, very, I don't want to say very naive, but trusting and so it was, it was, you know, one a, a great spot for her to get away with the, the things that she did.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:05:18] Bob: A few years ago, Cactus got sick. He was in the early stages of Alzheimer's, and the couple discussed what his wishes were for the end of his life.

[00:05:30] Diana McBride: So he and my mom for quite a while would discuss, you know, what, what they wanted when they would pass away. And they both knew that they wanted to be cremated. They had a, a dog for many, many years that they loved dearly, and that dog had died, and they had the dog cremated. So they had the cremains of their dog in their spare bedroom, and my stepdad said, "You know, when I go, I would like to be cremated and you mix my ashes with Mitzi's and, you know, he, he, he wanted to be with Mitzi. So that was something my Mom knew for a very long time.

[00:06:12] Bob: Cactus and Shirley didn't have a lot of money, so that entered into their plans.

[00:06:18] Diana McBride: And they would drive around Montrose and there'd be advertisements for Sunset Mesa Funeral Home, 'cause my parents were on a very fixed income; they lived just on Social Security. And they would see advertisements for Sunset Mesa that a simple cremation was $695. And my stepdad told my mom, you know, "That's what you should do when I pass away," you know, "don't spend a lot of money, you know, just, just have me cremated." And so that's what my mom did.

[00:06:49] Bob: Unfortunately, Shirley had to put this plan into action much sooner than expected.

[00:06:54] Diana McBride: So my stepdad passed away May 14th, 2017, and the reason why I know the exact date right off the top of my head is May 14th is my birthday, and so he passed away, and on that particular year my birthday fell also on Mother's Day, and it was a Sunday, and he passed away. Now he had been ill with dementia and, uh Alzheimer's but other than that, he wasn't sickly or physically ill. He hadn't been hospitalized. My mom was caring for him and she, his Alzheimer’s hadn't progressed so far, like he knew who she was, he knew who I was, whenever I would call he would talk with me. But you know, he did need a, a little bit extra care and my mom took care of him. But he had not been in the hospital. So when he passed away, it was somewhat sudden.

[00:07:53] Bob: And so you were, you were in California, I'm guessing, right, when that happened?

[00:07:56] Diana McBride: I was. And as a matter of fact, my mother did not call me, my sister ended up calling me because my mom, it was my birthday; this is how stubborn she is, and she told my sister, "I don't want to upset Diana. It's her birthday. I'll let her know tomorrow." But, of course my sister, you know, wouldn't have that. So my sister contacted me to let me know that he had passed away.

[00:08:22] Bob: Mom, independent Mom, already had a plan for taking care of everything.

 [00:08:28] Diana McBride: So when I spoke with my mom, of course I wanted to fly out immediately and help her, and she was adamant. She said, "I have it all taken care of, Diana. They took him to the hospital and pronounced him dead, and the coroner examined him and they're going to transport him to Sunset Mesa, you know, to the funeral home that we picked out to be cremated." She said, "Don’t worry, I have it all taken care of. You don't need to come immediately. I would really wish that you would wait a few days and not come right away." So I wasn't there when he was cremated. You have to know my mom to know she's very specific how she does things. She's very stubborn. She's very organized also, but she plans things out and it, and wants to execute her plan. And she's a very strong, independent woman, and she convinced me, I think too, because I hadn't been there in quite a long time, she wanted to get her house all situated, and I kept telling her, I said, "Mom, it doesn't matter." Like, "I need to be there to help you." "No, no, I'm going to pick him up next Thursday from the funeral home."

[00:09:39] Bob: She'd pick up Cactus next Thursday for a very specific reason.

[00:09:44] Diana McBride: Yes, so he passed away on a Sunday, and on Monday she contacted the insurance company and they said they would have a check to her by the following Wednesday. And that's when she contacted Megan and said, "I'll pick him up next Thursday, 'cause I'll have the money."

[00:10:03] Bob: Megan is Megan Hess, the owner of Sunset Mesa Funeral Home. Shirley needs the death benefit check to pay for the cremation. The check does arrive in time, so...

[00:10:15] Diana McBride: So she went out there on the Thursday that she had told both me and Megan that she would go. And when she got there, there was a gal working at the, the desk there, and she went in and, and said who she was there. You know, "I'm here to pick up Gerald Hollenback." And the gal went to the back and was gone for I don't know, you know, several minutes, and came back out and told my mom, she said, "I'm sorry, I, I don't see a Gerald Hollenback back there." And my mom said, "Well, you know, can you get a hold of Megan, 'cause I told Megan that I'm going to be here today to pick him up." And she said, "No, I can't get a hold of Megan. Megan is out of town. She left. She went to Hawaii, and she's not coming back till Tuesday." So that particular weekend, the Thursday my mom was there was the Thursday before Memorial Day weekend. And so this young gal was telling my mom that Megan had left town to go to Hawaii, and she'd be back Tuesday after Memorial Day. And my mom was like, "Well, can't you call her on her cellphone or get ahold of her? I, I told Megan I was coming today to get him." And she said, "No, I can't contact her. I'm sorry, we, we, we can't find him." And uh, "You'll have to come back next Tuesday when Megan's here."

[00:11:36] Bob: Diana knew her mom was supposed to pick up Cactus that afternoon, so she calls to make sure everything went according to plan.

[00:11:45] Diana McBride: She said, "Well no, I tried, I tried to get him and, and they couldn't find him." And immediately I thought, well... and then I was very upset at myself, 'cause I thought, you know, none of this would have happened if I was there. And I said, "Well Mom, what do you mean?" And so she told me the story and I said, "Well Mom, I, I don't und--, you know, how can they not find somebody?" I said, "This really concerns me." And she said, "Well, I can't do anything about it until Megan comes back on Tuesday, apparently." And I could tell my mom was very shaken up about it, 'cause now she was worried too, like did they lose him? Did they mix up his body with somebody?

[00:12:25] Bob: So Diana hangs up with her mom and immediately thrusts herself into research mode.

[00:12:30] Diana McBride: So when I heard that, I was very upset, and I took the next day or so to research how cremations are done and the identification process and what the procedure is. Because I thought at the very worst that this was a slipshod operation and that they either lost his body or mixed it up with someone else, and that maybe he got buried, you know, I just, I was really mortified, because I, I, I thought, you know what, what could have happened why they couldn't find him. And so I did a lot of research about how proper cremations are done, and the identification process. And I told my mom, I called her back, and I started to give her some details, but then my husband sort of waved to me when I was on the phone, like, you know, don't upset her. You know, she's just gone through a lot. And you know, don't freak her out. So I kind of reined it back in.

[00:13:34] Bob: Diana wants to make sure she isn't necessarily causing her mom more pain.

[00:13:39] Bob: I understand your dilemma. You wanted to play 20 questions with your mom to find out what's really going on, but she's suffered this loss, and so you don't want to push her.

[00:13:46] Diana McBride: That's exactly true, Bob. You know I think part of it with me too is I felt so guilty and awful for not being there and taking care of it. I really did, I kept thinking if I was there, none of this would have happened. And so I think part of that frustration, you know, was coming out and me trying to now get control of the situation and rectify it. Um, so I waited till Tuesday morning...

[00:14:14] Bob: But come Tuesday, Diana plans to call Megan at the funeral home herself, and Shirley, kind Shirley, well she's actually worried about hurting Megan's feelings.

[00:14:26] Diana McBride: I did tell my mom, I said, "Mom, I'm going to call Megan on Tuesday. And I'm going to take care of this." 'Cause I wasn't scheduled to fly out until the following Friday, and my mom knows my personality, and she knows that I tend to be, you know, somewhat determined, and I can be aggressive, particularly if it's something that I feel that's out of line. And my mom said, "Now Honey, please, you know, don't yell at her, don't, don't be mean because this is a very small town." My mom was actually concerned that I might upset or offend Megan.

[00:15:03] Bob: And here she, she lost her husband, and she's worried about being kind to the people at the crematory. That's amazing.

[00:15:10] Diana McBride: Yeah, it, it is. I mean it, it kind of gives you an insight, you know, to her personality. She's, on the one hand, she's a very strong and independent woman, but she is a very thoughtful and considerate person.

[00:15:23] Bob: So Tuesday comes, and Diana takes a deep breath and dials Sunset Mesa to find out what happened to Cactus.

[00:15:31] Diana McBride: Megan answered, and we proceeded, we had, I think the phone call's about 9 minutes long. But Megan was very defensive with me immediately, and again, I took the same posture with her. I just said, "You know, I'm really trying to help my mom here. I'm way out in California, and she's quite upset because, you know, you guys couldn’t find my stepdad." And she interrupted me immediately and said, "No, no, no. It isn't that we couldn't find him, it was a paperwork issue. I was out of town, I left town for the weekend, and I wasn't there. Your mom came on the wrong day." And right away that upset me, because I thought, no, no, no. My mother did not come on the wrong day. My mom's very specific. We all knew the day that she was going to come. And she said, "The issue is, is it was a paperwork issue. I started the paperwork with your mother, and I'm the only one that could finish the paperwork." And I said, "Well no, that's not what the young gal told my mom. She told her that she couldn't find him." "No, no, that is not the case. It's a paperwork issue, but I'm back now. Everything will be fine, and uh, we're very busy. We had three deaths over the weekend; however, I will take the cremains out to your mother's home today. Is that, is that okay?" And I just could tell by the way she was acting, she was so defensive and, and she was actually the one that was rude to me. And, and I, I just thought this is not, something is not right here. There's something that just, she doesn't sound right, she's too defensive...

[00:17:16] Bob: And as Diana starts to ask questions based on the research she'd done; the conversation becomes even more charged.

[00:17:24] Diana McBride: So I said, "Well, the challenge here now, you know, is that my mom, I think, doesn't have confidence that she will get the right cremains." I said, "Can you explain to me what your identification, what system you have in place to identify the deceased and the cremains?" And I asked her that specifically, 'cause like I said, I had done a lot of research and I wanted to see what her answer was going to be. And she did not answer me. She just kept saying, "No, everything will be fine. Yes, yes, I, I have everything together. Everything will be fine." And I asked her again, I said, "Can you tell me what your identification process is?" "Diana, don't you worry, it will be fine. I'm going to go out there today and," and then she went as far as to say, "You know, I gave your mom a special deal that we don't honor any longer. The cremation cost is well above, I gave her a special deal. I honored a price that we, we used to o--, offer years ago," and that even, I was taken aback even more when she said that. Like, oh, it's okay that everything got messed up because I gave your mom a special price. So everything about that phone call just really upset me even further.

[00:18:50] Bob: Diana calls her mom to give her the update. She tries not to seem too upset, and mainly wants her mom to be ready when Megan arrives later that day.

[00:19:00] Diana McBride: And I said, "She told me she's going to bring Cactus out to you today." And I said, "Now listen," and you know again, I'm trying to remember what my husband cautioned me, you know, like don't, I, I didn't really want to tell my mom how the whole conversation went because I was even more concerned after that conversation that things weren't right. But I said, "Mom, when she gets there," I said, "please make sure that she shows you the proper paperwork and identification. And she, she assured me that she has some, some type of, of paperwork or something to prove that the cremains, you know, that you're getting Cactus." And I said, "I want her to assure you of that." And she said, "Okay, I will, I will."

[00:19:50] Bob: So Diana sits and waits to hear what happened back in Colorado. But eventually she calls her Mom.

[00:19:58] Diana McBride: She said, "Oh yes, Diana, she, Megan came out and I'm sure I have Cactus. I know I have Cactus 'cause it's so heavy, the box is so heavy." 'Cause you know my stepdad was, was a big guy. So the way my mom reenacted it, she said that Megan pulled up into the driveway; my mom lives in a, a trailer park, and in a mobile home, and there's some steps you have to go up to get to the front door. So my mom heard her pull up, and she opened the screen door and started to go down the steps, and she said as soon as Megan got out of the car, before she could even get to the door she started saying, "Shirley, Shirley, it's all my fault. It's all my fault, Shirley. I had him in my safe. I left town, and I put him in my safe, and that's why they couldn't find him." Now, on the phone call to me, she told me it wasn't an issue that they couldn't find him. She told me it was a paperwork issue. And I said, "Mom, that's weird." She said, "Why would they put Cactus in her safe?" And she said, "I don't know, but that's why..." and see, my mom believed her. "That's why they couldn't find him, Diana. She had him in her safe." And she said she came in, she insisted on carrying the box 'cause it's so heavy, and she asked me, "Now where do you want him, because I don't want you to have to pick up this box. You tell me where you want him." So she walked Megan to the back bedroom and, and said, you know, she wanted to put him in there, and Megan put him down. And she said she sat and talked and talked with her and noticed the picture of Cactus in his uniform. And wanted to know about, you know, the military he was in, and "Oh, I need to get you a flag. I didn't realize he was in the military. I, I can get you a flag, Shirley."

[00:21:58] Bob: This apologetic Megan is a very different Megan than the one Diana spoke to on the phone earlier that day. Diana can't resist asking just a couple of questions.

[00:22:09] Diana McBride: I said, "Well Mom, did she show you on the paperwork, like an identifying number, you know, and there should be a metal tag on the, the sealed bag of cremains. Did she go through that with you?" "No, there's, she didn't show me any numbers." And I said, "Well, Mom, you know, can you describe to me what the container looks like that he's in?" And she said, "Well it's a big box. It's a big cardboard box." And I said, "And did you look inside?" "Yes," she said, "there's a big, thick plastic bag in there." And I said, "Well how is it sealed?" And she said, "With a twist tie." And I said, "What, what do you mean a twist tie?" I said, "You mean like a zip tie like those, those, you know, heavy plastic zip ties?" I said, "Does it have a metal tag attached to it?" "No, there's no metal tag." I said, "Well what kind of twist tie are you talking about?" She said, "You know when you go to the grocery store and you get the, the plastic bags for the..." and as soon as she said that, I'm thinking of a common twist tie that you tie a produce bag with, and my heart sank, 'cause I thought, this is not how proper cremains are, are packaged. And I, I was very upset.

[00:23:32] Bob: Oh my God.

[00:23:32] Diana McBride: I knew that...

[00:23:33] Bob: Like a loaf of bread or something, or a couple of apples in a bag. God.

[00:23:37] Diana McBride: Exactly.

[00:23:39] Bob: Diana is even more disturbed when she hangs up with her mom, but as she packs for her trip to Colorado, she has a heart to heart with her husband, and they both agree, they have to approach this situation with great care.

[00:23:53] Diana McBride: So now I'm preparing to fly out there, my husband and I are going out there, and I talked with him. He agreed too, he said, "Something is not right. It is, you know," he goes, "let's just wait till we get out there and see, you know, what the cremains look like." And after he and I talked though, he said, "Diana, something went wrong. They either, either mixed up the bodies, they're not organized there." He said, "However, let's get out there and see what the situation is, see what the cremains look like, and at the end of the day, if your mom believes that she has Cactus, isn't that what's most important? Do you want your mom to go on and worry about whether or not she has him 'cause at this point, there's really nothing that can be done if she doesn't." And the, the way I am, my personality is, you know, that, that doesn't set right with me. I want anything, you know, something that's wrong to be corrected, but how is this going to serve my mother? Is it going to torment her, is it going to make her, you know, not go through the proper grieving process, you know, or, or prolong any, any, anything horrible for her. So I really had to make a conscious decision to just sort of let it go.

[00:25:23] Bob: So Diana flies out to Colorado determined to do whatever is best for her grieving mom, even if that means letting go of her suspicions.

[00:25:33] Diana McBride: So we got out there and she did take me in the spare bedroom and showed me the box and she asked me, "Diana, do you think that's okay?" The box was a, like, picture like a banker's box, you know, with the, the sides with the open handles that you can grab and a lid. And inside the, the plastic bag was one of those very, very heavy type plastic bags with a twist tie. On the outside of the box was just a, like an Avery label that in Sharpie was written G. Hollenback. And that was it. That was the entire container, identification, et cetera.

[00:26:11] Bob: Nothing about the remains eases any of Diana's fears, but she sticks to her plan. She doesn't share any of her concerns with her mom.

[00:26:20] Diana McBride: So we were out there for several days and went through all kinds of other things with her, and it was until I got home, it did keep plaguing me, you know, what really happened. Did they mix up his body? Did they lose his body? You know I, little did I know what really happened. Really the, the horror, the nightmare was yet to come.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:26:46] Bob: Several weeks pass, and nothing has happened to clear up the situation when suddenly a single phone call changes the family's life forever.

[00:26:56] Diana McBride: My mom called and said she had a message from someone from Reuters, a, a Brian Grow that had called her and left her a voicemail. And that it pertained to Gerald Hollenback and Sunset Mesa Funeral Home. And she said, "I don't know what this, this gentleman wants." And I said, "Well no problem, Mom," I said, "give me the phone number and I'll call him, and I'll talk to him and see what he wants. I don't want you to deal with it." So I did, and I called, and that's when I was first introduced to Brian Grow who, I (chokes up) ugh, this happens every time I start to talk about him.

[00:27:35] Bob: Of course it does. How could it not?

[00:27:38] Diana McBride: Um, I, you know what's funny is my mom credits me for uh, all, all of this thing with Megan being exposed, and I said, "No, I, I deserve no credit. None of this would have happened without Brian Grow's investigation." Um, so I'm sorry for a second here. Um...

[00:28:00] Bob: Take, take your time. It's fine.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:28:05] Brian Grow: My name is Brian Grow. I am coming to you from Atlanta, Georgia, and for many years I was a reporter at Reuters on the Investigations Team conducting a wide range of largely business focused investigations for the world's largest news organization.

[00:28:22] Bob: Brian has worked on many, many big stories through the years as part of a special projects team.

[00:28:28] Brian Grow: At the beginning of every year it was my job always to come to my editors with story ideas you know for that next calendar year. We're always on that sort of a cycle. And so I always took great pride in trying to come to them with a wide range of options, you know, so that they could assess what they liked the most. Interestingly enough, in this instance, this was one of my, I'd say, 10 proposals, but it wasn't necessarily at the top. You know I had been doing diligence across many different topics and had come across the indictment of an individual in Detroit for transporting human heads across state lines that were found to have been infected with HIV and Hepatitis. And as you can imagine I said, what is this business? And so I literally just put it in a quick synopsis in my proposal to my editors and they said, "What is this business? Can you go find out more?" And that was the beginning of the process.

[00:29:30] Bob: Indeed, what is this business?

[00:29:34] Bob: This is one of those stories where your first reaction is, what? That people sell body parts?

[00:29:43] Brian Grow: Exactly. We couldn't quite understand, you know, what exactly we were dealing with because I think people also make the mistake of conflating body donation with organ donation. And they are two very different things. They are very different from a regulatory standpoint. Organ donation is heavily regulated, the government is directly involved. The body donation industry, which is selling body parts for medical education and research, is virtually unregulated. And you know as a result almost anyone can do it, and we really tried to understand like what is the business model?

[00:30:24] Bob: So Brian spends months looking into the body donation industry and its business model, meaning some of the players involved are for-profit companies.

[00:30:35] Brian Grow: And it became clear, Bob, that this is a pretty predatory industry. It targets its messaging to people who can't otherwise afford a burial or cremation very often. It uses altruistic language often saying things like, you know, give back to mankind by giving us your body which we will pass along for medical education and research. But, in fact, you don't really know in the body donation industry on the for-profit side where those body parts or whole bodies are going. You don't get to choose to whom that company gives, you know, your loved one's body. You don't get to choose what part of the body is going where. So in some instances, you know, the messaging is an outright lie where it's implied that someone who died of Alzheimer's would have their brain sent to an Alzheimer's research center for Alzheimer's research, when in fact, that maybe not be true at all. If they have a higher bidder who wants the whole body, you know and they want to send it to say Saudi Arabia, well it's a profit driven business, and they're going to take advantage of that cash making opportunity.

[00:31:50] Bob: As part of his reporting, Brian interviews many families who have donated loved ones to science. And in some cases, he has to tell them the dark truth about where their loved ones really ended up.

[00:32:02] Brian Grow: You know in this case, we were able to scrutinize documents in which people had explicitly said no to nonmedical experimentation, but then we traced those bodies to the US military and indeed found that they had been blown up. The hardest part of that reporting, Bob, was that many of the people didn't know. They just received some cremated remains thinking that everything had gone as promised. In one instance, the family was led to believe that their mother who had died of Alzheimer's would have her brain sent for Alzheimer's research, but in fact, her whole body was sent to the military as part of the blast testing program. And I was the one that had to inform them about that as part of the interview process. I remember being just on the edge of my seat as I asked them what they understood about the process they had gone through and what they thought had happened. And ultimately, it was clear that they didn't know; they were making assumptions. And I said, "Well as we chased records, this is what we found had happened," and the son actually broke down in front of me crying and said that he was, he thought he was doing the right thing, and he can't believe this was the outcome, and he was distraught. His wife was with him, comforted him, and said, "You did nothing wrong. They didn't tell you the truth." Uh, and ultimately, you know, he joined litigation that ensued against that firm, you know, to try to right the wrong. But this is the hardest part of the reporting of the series, Bob. There is no real way to right the wrong short of some judicial outcome, you know, that is somewhat satisfactory. You'll always have, unfortunately, that memory of, you know, not doing right by your loved one when you made this decision.

[00:33:52] Bob: And as Brian keeps reading documents, keeps interviewing families and people in the body donation business, one name keeps coming up, Sunset Mesa in Montrose, Colorado. Megan Hess, the owner, runs both a funeral home and a body donation business, and that seems strange. He planned to interview her.

[00:34:14] Brian Grow: Yes, so in the case of Megan Hess, I actually went to Colorado and that was because, as you can imagine, in our minds there was a fundamental conflict of interest in running a body donation business from a funeral home. Meaning, you know, on the one side of the business, you're providing burial and cremation. On the other side of the business, you're selling off the body parts. So wouldn't it be a possibility that bodies from the burial and cremation side of the business could end up on the body donation side, and so we wanted to go talk to people about their experience, and indeed, we wanted to talk to Megan about how she ran the operation.

[00:35:04] Bob: It wasn't easy to get Megan on the record.

[00:35:07] Brian Grow: So ultimately, I was able to get a sit down with Megan after much resistance. And as you can imagine, that resistance raised additional suspicion. Why not be willing to sit down, you know, if nothing, not questionable was going on in the operation. So I waited around, in fact, for about two days before I could actually get in to see her. And there were already question marks around uh, how this was being run. For example, Bob, on the website uh, that Megan Hess had, she claimed to have a PhD in Mortuary Science. Well our research indicated that there is no such thing as a PhD in Mortuary Science. And we talked to experts. We talked to like the National Funeral Society, and we said, "Can you get a PhD in Mortuary Science?" And they said, "No. It doesn't exist." You know, so right there we had a falsehood. And indeed, I asked her about that during the course of the interview, and she had this sort of diploma on the wall, and she said she got it online. In fact, she took a sip of her water bottle and got up and left the room for a few minutes. So we knew something wasn't quite right here.

[00:36:20] Bob: The interview makes Brian even more determined to find out what's really going on inside Sunset Mesa. So, he starts looking for more people to interview.

[00:36:30] Brian Grow: And ultimately I decided to talk to people who had worked there. And I asked the question that I specifically phrased in a way that wasn't sort of leading, but might be indicative of what they had experienced. I said, "Did you ever have reason to believe that a body that was designated for burial or cremation, ended up on the body donation side of the business?" And I just left it right there. In one case, one of the former employees said, "Well yes, I did because a lady came to collect her husband's cremated remains on a specified day, and I couldn't find them. And Megan was out of town, so I couldn't help the lady and she was very distraught because she wanted to take her husband home. When Megan got back," she said, "she scrambled and said, 'Oh, I had them in my safe.' And she came out of the back of the building with a box with a sticker on it with his name and she rushed out to give the cremated remains back." Right there I thought, we might have an instance of a body being diverted against the wishes of the next of kin and what was intended. So putting two and two together, I got a little bit more information about who that person was that had come to collect her husband's remains. And I was able to cross reference obituaries that matched up with that limited detail. And it turned out to be Shirley Hollenback and her husband, Cactus, and Shirley's daughter is Diana McBride.

[00:38:12] Bob: Armed with a little information and the obituary page, Brian determines that something suspicious has happened to a man named Cactus. And he learns where Shirley lives, but he and his editors now have a big, big decision to make.

[00:38:29] Brian Grow: And therein was kind of a moment of a fork in the road because as you can imagine, Bob, I consulted with my editors, and I said, "Now if I raise questions about what might have actually happened and why the cremated remains couldn't be found, we might be opening up, you know, a whole world of, you know, concern that you know we will be responsible for, and we have to do this right if we're going to do it at all."

[00:38:59] Bob: We have to do this right if we're going to do it at all. So what does the enterprising reporter decide to do? Will Diana and her mom ever find out what really happened to Cactus? And what was really going on inside Sunset Mesa? That's next week on The Perfect Scam.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:39:24] Bob: If you have been targeted by a scam or fraud, you are not alone. Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360. Their trained fraud specialists can provide you with free support and guidance on what to do next. Thank you to our team of scambusters; Associate Producer, Annalea Embree; Researcher, Sarah Binney; Executive Producer, Julie Getz; and our Audio Engineer and Sound Designer, Julio Gonzalez. Be sure to find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. For AARP's The Perfect Scam, I'm Bob Sullivan.

(MUSIC OUTRO)

[00:40:05] Bob: Hi everybody. This is Bob Sullivan, host of The Perfect Scam, and before you run to your next podcast, I want to introduce you to what we here at AARP hope will be your next podcast. It's called, "Today's Tips from AARP," and it's full of the kind of straightforward, practical tips you've come to expect from AARP only in podcast form. It's fun and quick and we hope you'll give it a try, so there's a 3-minute episode coming your way as soon as I stop talking. So here is Today's Tips from AARP.

(MUSIC INTRO)

[00:40:40] These are Today's Tips from AARP.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:40:47] Are you on top of your spring cleaning, and I don't mean the mismatched Tupperware in the kitchen cabinet or the mess in the garage. Today I'm talking about digital spring cleaning, organizing your phone, tablet, or laptop doesn't just lower your stress levels. It also can help protect you from hackers and identity theft. That's why I'm sharing tips for digital decluttering, including clearing data that's a magnet for cybercrime, deleting what drains your energy, and changing your passwords to keep your personal info safe.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:41:22] First, clear the data that's a magnet for cybercrime. The apps, accounts, and outdated documents that you rarely, if ever, open don't just take up storage space on your phone, tablet, and computer, they also make it easier for cybercriminals to discover more information about you. So trash what's collecting digital dust including copies of files with personal or financial information, and remember, if you're on a computer, empty the trash afterward. I know this sounds tedious, so here's an extra incentive. Clearing out your data can help your devices run faster too.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:42:01] Our second tip: Delete what drains your energy. Maybe you feel exhausted every time you scroll through your newsfeed, or maybe the hundreds of unread emails in your inbox are completely overwhelming. That's your cue to uninstall the social media apps that you find stressful from your phone. Or cancel those accounts altogether. Then unsubscribe from any newsletters or promotional emails that flood your inbox. If the unsubscribe button doesn't seem to stop the emails from coming, mark them as spam. There are several apps and unsubscribe services that help you declutter your inbox, but keep in mind, they may have fees or share your data with a third party.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:42:44] Our last piece of advice, if you can't remember the last time you changed your password, now is the time. Changing your password every three months or so makes it harder for someone to hack into your bank account and get other important information. And this goes without saying, but don't use the same password for every account. Once you've changed your important passwords, add a reminder to your calendar to do it again in three months.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:43:13] So to review, spring cleaning isn't just for your home, it's also for your tech. Clear any data that you don't use and delete what drains your energy. Then change your passwords if you haven't in the past three months.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:43:29] Those are Today's Tips from AARP. For more advice to help you strengthen your health, money, and happiness, visit AARP.org. Thanks for listening.

(MUSIC OUTRO)

END OF TRANSCRIPT

Planning a loved one’s burial or cremation is a difficult experience under the best of circumstances. When Diana’s stepfather, Cactus, gets sick during the early stages of Alzheimer’s and sees a billboard advertising simple cremations for $695 at Sunset Mesa Funeral Home, he requests that his family cremate him and not spend a lot of money. But when Cactus dies and his cremains go missing under mysterious circumstances, it sets off a series of events that not only exacerbates the family’s grief, but also tips off a lengthy investigation by Reuters journalists that rocks a small community in western Colorado and exposes the dark, unregulated side of the body trade industry.

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