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Colorado Funeral Home Body Brokering Scheme, Part 2

A journalist uncovers shocking truths about what is really going on at the Sunset Mesa Funeral Home

spinner image The Sunset Mesa funeral home and crematorium are investigated for fraud.
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spinner image A funeral home in a small town is accused of body brokering without consent.
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Full Transcript

(MUSIC INTRO)

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

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:00:04] Bob: And, and you've already mentioned this is a small community, and, and there must have been very few people in that area that weren't touched by this directly in some way.

[00:00:11] Incredibly widespread impact on the community. There was a Facebook page created for victims of, of Megan Hess, victims of Sunset Mesa. It was called that. And there were hundreds of people in there. And their stories were all the same, you know. This is what she said to me, this is what she promised, and this is what I found out really happened to Dad. It's incredible. It's devastating to that community. By my, my calculations, you know at the low end, she may have stolen 3% of the population of Montrose.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:00:50] Bob: Welcome back to The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Bob Sullivan. When we left our story, Reuters reporter, Brian Grow, had just discovered something really terrible is going on inside Sunset Mesa Funeral Home in Montrose, a small city in a remote part of Southwest Colorado. He's investigating the for-profit body broker industry, a set of middlemen who supply human remains to organizations for research purposes. Grow is convinced that some bodies are being donated against their family's wishes. His reporting has taken him to Montrose to Sunset Mesa and now to Shirley Hollenback who recently had her husband, Cactus, cremated at Sunset Mesa, or at least that's what Shirley thinks happened. Brian suspects something else happened, and he's decided to inform Shirley.

[00:01:45] Brian Grow: I had called her first. And you know, part of our approach has always been complete transparency. So I told Shirley, my name is Brian Grow, I'm a reporter with Reuters, you know, I'm doing research on the body donation industry, and had been conducting reporting on Sunset Mesa where there, there is a body donation business running from the funeral home. And I understood that there might have been a problem when you went to pick up your husband's cremated remains. And right there, you know, I'm putting full context around what I'm doing, and Shirley was actually you know while I think a little bit nervous, and that's when she put me in touch with Diana.

[00:02:28] Bob: So Brian calls Shirley's daughter.

[00:02:30] Diana McBride: So I spoke with Brian, and he was so amazing, he was so careful and thoughtful about how he, he approached the subject, and so you know just, just very considerate. And he asked me if I had ever heard of any, anything in black market trade or, or body part, the selling of body parts, if I'd ever heard of anything like that? And as soon as he said that, I knew where this was going. And I said, "No, Brian," I said, "You know, I have not heard of it, but I now know what's happened to my stepdad."

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:03:15] Bob: As Diana talks with Brian, she puts the pieces together almost immediately. That nagging feeling she'd had for months; it all makes sense now. That's why Megan at Sunset Mesa couldn't find her stepfather's remains because they'd been sold. She hadn't heard any of the evidence yet, but inside she already knows the horrible truth.

[00:03:38] Diana McBride: He, again, you know, he was very careful how he broached the subject, and he asked me a few questions, and he asked me how things came about with my stepdad. And I, it was almost, I want to say it was almost a relief. It was horrifying to hear, but it was almost a relief at the same time because you know when things don't make sense and they don't add up, the type of person I am, when that happens it will bug me and bug me and bug me until I can figure it out, until I can have an answer to it. And, and basically talking with Brian gave me that answer, but the answer was horrifying, but at the same time it was like, oh, thank, you know, now I know why this didn't add up and why it was so weird.

[00:04:25] Bob: I mean there's, there's still, you know, another massive leap here from there was a screwup and maybe I have the mo--, the wrong remains to that something far more nefarious is going on. That must have been a shock.

[00:04:40] Diana McBride: It was, it was a, a huge shock. And I, you know, told my daughter about it and a couple of our close friends. And they were in disbelief because again, people know so little about the funeral industry, and how it's ran and what goes on. And I think really most of us don't want to know. It's, you know, who wants to think about what happens in those buildings and how they cremate people or how they embalm people. Most people don't want to know, but once you, you know, peel the curtain back and you see how things are done and, and how, like I said before, how unregulated it is, uh, it's quite shocking.

[00:05:27] Bob: Diana first has to figure out how she'll talk with her mom about what she thinks happened to Cactus.

[00:05:33] Diana McBride: I started out slowly. I said, "Mom, this gentleman from Reuters is doing an investigation, like an investigative series on the funeral industry." And I said, "You know, somebody tipped him off to Sunset Mesa," and I said, "Mom, you know there's a reason why they couldn't find Cactus's cremains." I said, "There is some suspicion that she may have been involved in some of these, you know, things that, that..." and it, it was very hard for me to tell her that, that there may be a situation where they took bodies that were supposed to be cremated and sold them. But I did say that to her. And she said, she confessed to me then that she would, 'cause my mom talks to Cactus all the time ever since he's passed away, and she said, "You know, Diana, I would go into that bedroom and I would say, 'Cactus, is this you that's here?'" And she said, "I would hear in my head someone would say, 'No.'" And I said, "Well Mom, why didn't you ever tell me that?" And she said, "I, I, I just couldn't, 'cause," she said, "I thought number one you'd think I was crazy that I do that. And," she said, "I wasn't sure if I heard 'no,' just because of what happened or if he was really telling me no."

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:07:04] Bob: So the Reuters reporter plans a trip to visit Shirley in person.

[00:07:08] Brian Grow: You know, Montrose is not a very big place. There's only about, I think about 16,000 people in Montrose, so she lived outside town just a little bit in a community that is single and doublewide trailers that are, you know, affixed, you know, and they have their own porches. It's not particularly affluent by any means. And Shirley had lived there for a long time. Cactus was, in fact, Diana's stepfather, and they had been together there in that home for many years. It was very well appointed, and you know, Shirley was a very welcoming host; I recall she gave me a Coca Cola. She was absolutely lovely. We talked about Cactus. She had lots of pictures and mementos. And I guess in a stroke of luck, Bob, she had her own concerns about what might have happened and why Cactus couldn’t be found.

[00:07:56] Bob: Walking away from Shirley's home, Brian knows he's onto something even bigger than he thought.

[00:08:03] Brian Grow: I called my reporting partner, John, and I called my editors, and I said, "I think we've got something here. I think there might be a pattern of behavior in which bodies are being diverted, and I think we need to scrutinize this even more closely." So that led me to interview a half dozen of the former employees, all of whom told, Bob, stories of their suspicions of body parts being stored, stacked in a freezer, of, of a flower business that Megan ran in the next-door building, where when they had overflow from the freezer in the body donation side, every so often parts would be stored there with the flowers. I mean it was bizarre. And it was highly suspicious.

[00:08:45] Bob: As Brian does more research into Sunset Mesa, he finds even more red flags.

[00:08:51] Brian Grow: Now recall, this was a family-run business. So Megan was the, the face of the business. But her mother, in fact, conducted what's called the recovery, and that's a nice way of saying, she chopped up the bodies. But she had no experience. You know no training. And one of the things that had led us to be suspicious is when we talked to people who had bought body parts from Megan early in our reporting process, one of them in particular had said he was running a surgical training program and he had body parts shipped to where that was being conducted. But when the heads arrived, they were in plastic bags with blood swirling in the bottom of the bag, and the hair still on the heads. So the lack of professionalism right there, that person indicated, led him to be suspicious about what was really going on at, at Sunset Mesa.

[00:09:52] Bob: Brian, Brian, this sounds like a horror movie.

[00:09:54] Brian Grow: It is a horror; I mean this isn't the only case of just atrocious treatment of the deceased in ways that are effectively desecration of a body. And unfortunately, this is the byproduct of an anyone can do it industry where there is so little regulation that as I said, you can just set up shop in a warehouse, put up a website that solicits donation in exchange for a free cremation, put some stock photos on there and have a, add to cart button, you know when you want to say, yes, you know, we're going to donate Mom, or you know Mom says, you know what, I think I want to donate my body, you know after I pass and save you guys the cost. Indeed the headline of the story about Megan Hess, Bob, was "Add to Cart" 'cause that's exactly what she had on her website on the body donation section.

[00:10:52] Bob: But did you have nightmares while doing this story?

[00:10:56] Brian Grow: You know I didn't have nightmares so to speak, but I had sleepless nights thinking about the delicate nature of the reporting. So I don't know if you had a chance to read one of the other stories about the incredibly poor family in Tennessee who had donated their son after he passed away from, you know, years of failing kidneys, and they had no choice because they had no money and the, the father makes money by mowing lawns and selling firewood. And they live in a camper in a trailer park. And they had no idea what they were really getting into when they donated his body, but they didn't have a choice and they said that. And they thought that they were just going to take samples of tissue because he had had so many surgeries in his life as his mom said to me, "I didn't want any cutting on him anymore." But in fact, Bob, as part of our reporting, we decided to test the protocols of how these brokers sell body parts. And we reached out in my name with my real email address, and asked if we could buy two heads and a spine. And that broker sold us two heads and a spine. The spine turned out to be their son's spine. And so I had to go back and talk to them about what they understood about the process, and then lay out what had happened. And it was heartbreaking. It was heartbreaking. Absolutely heartbreaking. I've never had an experience like that as a reporter where the emotion was just so high. Ultimately, I think that they were thankful that you know we were transparent with them, and you know, they understanding that, you know, this was sort of a process gone awry.

[00:13:04] Bob: And however painful, the truth is always better, right?

[00:13:06] Brian Grow: Absolutely.

[00:13:08] Bob: Right away, Diana can sense how kind and thorough Brian is as a reporter.

[00:13:13] Diana McBride: Everything he did, they were so careful to make sure the accuracy, you know to, I mean you hear so much today about you know fake news, fake news. In my opinion Reuters is so credible because my experience with this whole thing and with the, the story and the series that they put out, they were always, and Brian was always so, he made sure that everything he did was accurate, and that they would only put in the story or the series things that, that could be backed up by facts.

[00:13:46] Bob: That makes me, does my heart good to hear you say that, honestly.

[00:13:50] Diana McBride: Yeah, and, and I think too that's what also made it so much easier for my mom and I to want to pursue it and, and work with him, because we knew that it wasn't going to be something that was sensationalized or you know salacious or for ratings or to sell papers or you know, whatever it might be. It was literally trying to get to the bottom and what was factual.

[00:14:14] Bob: By the time Brian's reporting brings him to Diana and Cactus, he's developed the expertise to obtain answers, answers that might be uncomfortable about what really happened to Cactus. He's ready to do that kind of analysis for Diana and her mom too, but only if they're willing.

[00:14:34] Diana McBride: So I had many conversations with Brian, and he asked, he was very careful and considerate to ask, you know, "Do you, do you want to get involved with this?" And I said, "Yeah, I, I, I'll talk with my mom and see how she feels about it, but definitely, I want to, you know, get some type of resolution and if, in fact, this is what happened, I want to see this through and make sure that, you know, justice is served for, for my stepdad."

[00:15:03] Bob: It sounds like there was no hesitation for you. I mean at--, that, this is a big choice to get involved in something like this.

[00:15:11] Diana McBride: It was, and I, I, I knew for sure that I wanted to see it through. The, the question for me was, do I, how much of it do I want to share with my mom, and how--, you know, how is this going to affect her? And so I was careful with the first phone call with my mom approaching it. And she, I was surprised really how open she was to it, 'cause I, I didn't, you know, I didn't want to upset her. But, she, she did get used to the idea that you know this very well could have happened to him, and so she also wanted to, to get answers and certainly, if it did happen, she wanted to see you know Megan held accountable for it.

[00:15:58] Bob: So Reuters offers to test the remains Shirley has to see if they really belong to Cactus.

[00:16:06] Bob: Was it hard to decide to allow Reuters to examine the, whatever you had in that box?

[00:16:15] Diana McBride: No, it wasn't. Because, you know, once, once I heard what could have happened, you know, of course immediately I wanted to, to get some kind of proof or, or something, something tangible. My mom by then, you know, it took a few weeks, 'cause Brian did all this in stages, and it was, it, it wasn't all at one time. And I would have conversations with him, and then the next conversation would be the next step. And he'd say, "Well how do you feel about this? And how do you think your mom's going to feel about this?" And so it was done over a period of time where I feel like she was able to kind of, I don't want to say ease into it, but you know what I mean, it wasn't, it wasn't just something that happened all in one day. and so she had time to process it, and you know, mentally digest it. When he then said, you know, "We have a place that can analyze your cremains, and you know, we'll take care of it for you, and this is where you need to send it, et cetera., my mom you know was very willing to do that.

[00:17:22] Brian Grow: They gave me permission to have the cremated remains examined by an anthropologist who specializes in cremains at Western Carolina University. And I took the cremains myself to their lab and we laid out sort of the parameters of the testing that they would conduct. And ultimately, when the results came back, Bob, they assessed that the cremated remains were more likely to have been a female of approximately 5'7" tall, and 185 pounds, whereas Cactus was well over 6 feet tall and weighed over 200 pounds.

[00:18:04] Diana McBride: Yes, so they did a very thorough report. They can actually date things and, and you know, that whole scientific process is fascinating to me. But they can tell, you know, to what degree a piece of bone has been incinerated, et cetera, but they sent back a thorough report, and it was quite shocking. It was another step where, oh my gosh, now we definitely know we don’t have Cactus. But to just summarize what the analytic report stated, they stated that based on the weight and the amount of cremains that were provided, what they could glean from it was that it was most likely cremains from a female that weighed about 120 pounds. But what was interesting is included in with the cremains were all types of pieces of metal. There was the backing to a wrist watch, there was metal rivets like you find, for instance like on a pair of blue jeans, you know that have like the rivets on the pockets. There were metal rivets in there. There were pieces of metal from a metal zipper. They had pictures of all these pieces that they lined up and they put, you know, the little measuring tape behind so you could get the scale and everything. My stepdad was taken to the hospital in his, he had on a pair of drawstring pajama pants, and a t-shirt when he died in the living room, and the paramedics came and transported his body to the hospital in, in that. So he had no metal on him. He had no wristwatch on him. He had nothing on him that had a zipper, nor did he have any kind of pants or anything that had metal, metal rivets. So that became a, a big mystery as to how these metal pieces were, you know, included in the cremains.

[00:19:56] Bob: Even worse, Brian would learn later...

[00:19:59] Brian Grow: They had a bucket full of random cremated remains that may also have contained concrete mixer in the corner of their recovery room on the body broker side. That it appears they would just take a shovel full and put it in a box and tell the next of kin that that was their loved one. So it was an outright criminal organization.

[00:20:21] Bob: They would, they, they would sell, they would sell the body and take a shovel full of dust and put in a bag and say, "Here's your loved one."

[00:20:29] Brian Grow: Correct.

[00:20:32] Bob: That's just hard to even imagine.

[00:20:34] Brian Grow: It is hard. It is.

[00:20:37] Bob: As Diana and her mom digest the awful truth, they feel more determined than ever to get justice for Cactus and for everyone.

[00:20:47] Bob: So now you have a report that, that definitely tells you that you, you didn't get Cactus. So what happens next?

[00:20:56] Diana McBride: So we had, in this process, we retained an attorney, and I gave our attorney all of this information and we proceeded to open a civil suit against Sunset Mesa Funeral Home and Megan Hess. Along that same time, I had also filed a complaint with DORA which is the Department of Regulatory Services or Agency for Colorado, because I was in disbelief that she could run such an operation like this, and that was a very revealing process, because our attorneys then subpoenaed DORA all the records that they had pertaining to Sunset Mesa Funeral Home. And at this time, she was still in operation and still doing business. And I got all of the complaints; DORA sent to our attorney huge files of throughout the years, I think starting in 2012 they started; complaints that were filed against Sunset Mesa and I took one weekend and read through hundreds of them that were the complaint that the, the client filed and then DORA's action that they sent to Megan Hess, and sometimes she would respond and sometimes she didn't respond at all. And nothing was ever done. DORA would, would email the complaint to Megan and give her 60 days to respond, and sometimes she would respond and other times she never responded, and the only clear files that I saw from year to year to year were that they would send her her bill to renew her business license for 700 and some dollars, and once she would make payment, they would send her her new card that was her business license to continue to do business.

[00:22:54] Bob: Even though there were hundreds of these complaints.

[00:22:57] Diana McBride: Yes.

[00:22:58] Bob: Wow.

[00:22:59] Diana McBride: And sometimes her response would just be an email denying whatever the person was complaining, and just saying, you know, all kinds of crazy things that, no, I did this and this, and they're wrong. And that would be the end of it.

[00:23:15] Bob: But that wasn't going to be the end of it for Diana.

[00:23:19] Diana McBride: When I filed my complaint, I sent that off, and I was very aggressive because by then I saw how they had operated, and I said, you know, "Here's this complaint. I believe that my stepdad, you know, that has been, his body has been mishandled," et cetera, and the gal that I connected with at DORA, she acknowledged getting my complaint, and she said, "We're on this, we're looking into it," and I, I have followed up with her, I want to say almost weekly; What is the determination? What is the determination?

[00:23:53] Bob: And then finally...

[00:23:55] Diana McBride: And it took a while, but finally I got an email one day and I opened it up, and is said, "Ms. McBride, here is a copy of the cease and desist that have just sent Megan Hess." And I read it, and I started to sob because it was the final thing that they were finally going to shut down her business. And it said, you know, "Dear Ms. Hess," et cetera, et cetera, "at 5 pm effective today you will cease and desist all operation of Sunset Mesa Funeral Home." And I thought, thank God, thank God they're shutting her down. I called my mom and I read it to her, and I said, "Thank God, Mom, they're shutting her down." And I think within two weeks after that, the FBI raided her facility.

[00:24:47] Bob: And now you have a sense like justice is going to be served.

[00:24:51] Diana McBride: Yeah, at least for now she can't continue to do what she had been doing.

[00:24:58] Bob: About the same time as the raid, Reuters publishes its story about Sunset Mesa, one in a deep series about the body broker industry and the funeral home is now front page news.

[00:25:09] Bob: And you know, I'm just wondering, 'cause, 'cause it seems to me, I'm sure seeing the story in print was also a big moment for you and your mom, right?

[00:25:17] Diana McBride: Yeah, so the Montrose Daily Press did it on the front page and you know, had a picture of Sunset Mesa and, and see, and now, yes, the word is getting out. And other people that had had their, their loved ones, you know, cremated there started like, what? And, it, it, it kind of blew up, and so someone started a Facebook page, "Victims of Sunset Mesa," and the gal that, that facilitates it, vets people to make sure you're truly victims, because she didn't want like attorneys to go on there or media or anything. She, she wanted it as a platform for, for the victims to all communicate with each other. And so I joined that, and I wasn't ever really active on it. I didn't go on there and tell my story. I just wanted to be a part of it so I could hear other people's stories and, and you know, get updates and, as to what was happening with them and so forth. But it has been kind of a, you know, a nice, I don't want to say nice, but a, you know, sort of a cathartic thing to hear other people, other people’s stories and, and what they're going through. You know, it's sort of like a support group.

[00:26:26] Bob: And as prosecutors build their case, Reuters continues to publish its series about body brokers, but even in that troubled industry, Sunset Mesa stands out.

[00:26:37] Brian Grow: The Megan Hess operation was even an outlier, Bob, in an OMG world of the body broker business. She actually charged for the cremation even when they were donating the body that she made extra money from selling. At minimum, the prosecutors in her case identified 550 instances in which she did not have consent to sell the body parts because those individuals had either never filled out that form or had explicitly said no. So she was double-dipping, which is sort of the worst of the many horrible things we found in the industry. She's charging people, (chuckle) and then she's making extra money off the side. It's not a laughing matter, in fact, it's just so ridiculous that you know this was such a profit driven criminal enterprise.

[00:27:32] Bob: And, and you've already mentioned this is a small community, and there must have been very few people in that area that weren't touched by this directly in some way.

[00:27:42] Brian Grow: Incredibly widespread impact on the community. There was a Facebook page created for victims of, of Megan Hess, Victims of Sunset Mesa, it was called that. And there were hundreds of people in there. And their stories were all the same, you know, this is what she said to me, and this is what she promised, and this is what I found out really happened to Dad. It's incredible, it's devastating to that community. By my, my calculations, you know at the low end, she may have stolen 3% of the population of Montrose.

[00:28:19] Bob: But even after all that, the outcome of any criminal case against Sunset Mesa's owners, is unclear.

[00:28:26] Bob: So there is a situation where you might say I'm donate--, donating my body but explicitly, my intentions are this can't happen. And the company does it anyway, and there's no crime?

[00:28:43] Brian Grow: It is very hard to pin a crime on an operation unless there is reasonable, you know, kind of information for law enforcement to decide to conduct a more thorough examination, and then they have to look at the consent forms that were obtained by that operation from the donors or their next of kin and understand what did they agree to, and what, in fact, happened? So it's a pretty arduous process. Ultimately when they decided to go in, they found that the documentation either didn't exist, had been forged, or the consents themselves had been violated.

[00:29:28] Bob: But the investigation at least helps Diana and her mom learn the truth about Cactus, however painful it might be.

[00:29:36] Bob: So you learned a little bit more about what might have happened to Cactus from the FBI, right?

[00:29:42] Diana McBride: Well, so yes, people, that was another benefit to the Facebook page, was people would start posting when they would get notified from the Department of Justice, because once they raided her facility, apparently she kept very thorough records of, of everything she did to these bodies and where they went and who she sold them to and, and so forth, but I asked the, the agent that I was working with, I would contact him and follow up and say, "Any, any news on Gerald Hollenback? You know, do you know where he went?" And the first answer I got was, "No, we don't show any records for Gerald Hollenback in the, in the database." Apparently they went through all her computers and everything. And I thought, oh my gosh, but then I remembered, and I thought, oh my gosh, I called her and confronted her shortly after Cactus's death, and I, I probably put her antennas up, you know, what, I bet I, I put her on the defense, and any records of him, she probably destroyed for fear that I might pursue something and try and, you know, fig--, delve deeper into what happened to him, is the only thing I could think. You know, it, it kind of made sense in my head. So I thought, darn, I kinda did myself a disservice by calling her and doing that. But later, they actually found a handwritten ledger that was a big ledger book in, in all handwritten, and the FBI agent contacted me and said, "His name is in the ledger, and the only thing it says, Diana, is that his body was sold whole to Saudi Arabia." And it was difficult for me. I waited a long, long time before I told my mother this, because my mom had told me in the past that Cactus never wanted to go to the Middle East. My, my mom remembers him saying he was glad when he served he didn't have to go to the Middle East because that was the place he never wanted to go. And I thought, oh my God, he ended up in the Middle East. And so it was very hard for me. It took a, a long time before I told my mother that. I really debated because I didn't want, you know, her upset.

[00:32:08] Bob: I wonder if you could try to help us understand just how complicated the grief for this must be for you.

[00:32:15] Diana McBride: It's something you don't realize until you until you experience it, that when somebody dies and you have the comfort of knowing where they're buried and you can go visit their grave, or if you have their cremains and you spread them somewhere that you know they would want to be, there's a peace in that. Not knowing or in my case, you know, knowing that he ended up in a place that he never wanted to go, to the Middle East, is, is very upsetting because you can't, you know, they say put it to rest or lay it to rest, you know. It'll never be put to rest. It'll, it'll be, how do I say this? In so many cultures the dead are treated with such respect and reverence. And, you know, many cultures throughout history you see, you know, what they do for, for their, the dead, for their loved ones. And this is, is such an egregious violent act against that. Um, it's the opposite of respecting the dead. It's, it's the opposite of taking care of that loved one so that you can be at peace. Um, the best that my mom and I can hope for is that we see Megan and her mother face accountability and face a penalty for it. But there really will not be any peace in, in regard to my stepdad in knowing where he lays to rest, 'cause I, you know, I don't know that he's ever laid to rest.

[00:34:00] Bob: I'm so sorry. That must be just such a, I, I can't imagine what that feels like. But thank you for...

[00:34:07] Diana McBride: I, you know, I,

[00:34:08] Bob: ...helping us understand.

[00:34:08] Diana McBride: I, I appreciate you saying that, and um, it's hard enough, you know, for me. I, I was close to my stepdad when I was a child and, and growing up, you know, he had his faults and, and he was a character. What I grieve more, what you're hearing from me as far as um, grieving and being upset is for my mother, because I could imagine if it was my husband, and this happened to my husband how it would affect me. And so I grieve really, my, my, my sadness and is really for my mom. And, and, and I followed this through all this time because I want, I want something for my mom. I want her to get some kind of closure out of this. I really, I want this more than anything for her.

[00:34:58] Bob: Two more years go by, it's now four years since Cactus died. But in March 2020, Megan Hess and her mother, Shirley Koch, are finally indicted for six counts of mail fraud and three counts of transportation of hazardous material. Some of the body parts sold came from victims who carried infectious diseases. It takes 18 more months, but in July 2022, Megan Hess and her mother both plead guilty to one count of mail fraud. Then in January of this year, seven years after Cactus's remains went missing, a federal judge sentences Hess to 20 years in a federal prison. Koch, her mom, is sentenced to 15 years. "The defendants conduct was horrific and morbid, and driven by greed," said US Attorney Cole Finnegan. "They took advantage of numerous victims who were at their lowest point given the recent loss of a loved one. We hope these prison sentences will bring the victims’ family members some amount of peace as they move forward in the grieving process."

[00:36:05] Brian Grow: And as you know, the judge ultimately gave Megan Hess 20 years in prison which was 5 more years than the high end of what prosecutors were asking for because she found the crime so horrendous, and Megan showed no remorse. Well I read the court records, you know, I read as much as I could about what transpired in each of the court hearings, and she dissembled about what she was actually doing. She never fully acknowledged that she was illegally diverting people for profit from the funeral and cremation side of the business into the body broker side. She kept coming back to this sort of theme that she felt she was doing good for mankind. But it didn't fly with the judge because she never apologized. She never said, “I'm sorry” to the victims. And there were hundreds of victims there. And they had been outspoken, you know for years.

[00:37:06] Bob: And as Diana explains, the criminal process has helped her and her mom move forward, but not completely.

[00:37:13] Diana McBride: It's really a strange phenomenon that I had no idea after someone passes away, if you don't know, you know, I've heard stories about, you know, people that missing persons and, and things like that where they never recover the body and what a void it causes. And, and I never understood it until this happened. And I thought, wow, now I know what these people go through. And, you know, how important it is to know where your loved one is, whether they're in the cemetery or whether you have their cremains, it's, it really is important to, to get you through that loss.

(MUSIC SEGUE)

[00:37:57] Bob: After spending several years writing about and thinking about the body donation process, Brian has a few pieces of advice to offer listeners.

[00:38:06] Brian Grow: Well I think my first piece of advice is if, if you have a favorite university, if your alma mater has a medical school, and that medical school has a body donation program, and this is something that you really want to do or you know, your, your next of kin said they really wanted to do, that is a channel that I would say is the first choice. You're really arguing something good there. You're, you're training young, aspiring doctors. You're contributing to real medical research, and by and large, those programs are run really well. And frankly, they often have an insufficient supply of bodies compared to what they need. Now that's my first piece of advice. My second piece of advice is if you're in a situation where you can't afford burial or cremation, and body donation seems to be the only option, make sure you choose wisely to whom you might donate and scrutinize that documentation very closely and ask lots of questions. I just think that people in their, often in their grief are, find kind of quick... quickly and desperately to try to figure out what to do, what should I do? And you know that gets lost in the process. That, that scrutiny of what actually is going to happen here. So it's very hard often, but just take a pause and make sure you've examined things as thoroughly as possible before you sign on the dotted line.

[00:39:45] Bob: And it really helps to discuss the situation well before a decision has to be made.

[00:39:51] Brian Grow: To the extent possible, if you know that body donation is something that the next of kin has already said they want, or indeed, you know, you are going through the evaluation of what to do. Make a selection well in advance, and you can do that, like you can say when I die, I want to be donated here. And you can sign up in advance. In fact, the body donation programs love that. They know that they have a sort of a backlog. That's the opportunity to make sure you've made the right choice.

[00:40:22] Bob: As you can imagine, it was incredibly hard for Diana to talk with us about what happened to Cactus and her mom, but she's committed to making sure something good comes out of all of this.

[00:40:35] Diana McBride: Our goal became along the way, not only to get the truth and to see Megan held accountable, but I think the bigger goal, and the reason why I'm talking to you today is for people to know, to get, to, to make awareness and, and get it out there, what really goes on? Now I'm not saying this happens everywhere. You know, there are reputable funeral homes and reputable places, but, but the fact that there are those that, that don't, that do this is, is, is shocking and, and you know, people need to be aware, and laws need to be put in place, and, and some type of accountability really needs, I think, to happen and, and really that's the goal for my mom and I both uh now is to make sure that this is, this is out there, and that people know what happened. I really hope that people have an awareness and that they, they look into and delve into where, wherever they live, you know that the, how the funeral industry is governed or regulated, and just have a, an awareness so that, because none of us, as I said before, none of us want to think of death, or think of what we have to do when we're faced with death, but I, I just hope people will be mindful, 'cause I'm sure there are other places out there, God forbid, other funeral homes in states that are, aren't regulated every well, that this still could be happening. And you know I, I, I, I shudder to think that this is still going on, but it very well could be. It's a very lucrative business. Megan has made a lot of money selling these body parts and doing what she did. And so I feel like it takes the awareness of, of the general public so that they can look into and, and, and look into what laws are in place, and, and pay attention, and not only that, for funeral home, people that run and operate funeral homes, to know that hey, people are aware of this going on now. And, and so maybe some of the underhanded ones that God forbid might still be doing this, think, oh, you know what, the jig is up. We're, we're not going to get away with this anymore. I really do appreciate you taking the time to do this as well, 'cause, like I said it's, it's, it's, it is part of our I, I don’t want, what happened to my stepdad I feel like it wouldn't be in vain if something like this, something good comes out of it. I want what happened to him to turn into something that helps others and, and I think he would be very happy about that as well. So I appreciate you, you know, helping to get the story out.

[00:43:39] Bob: I know this is a very tough story to hear, but we don't want to, in any way, leave you with the impression that you shouldn't donate your body to science, and we absolutely don't want to create any confusion around organ donation. So to be absolutely clear, checking that box on your driver's license to donate an organ to save a life is a great thing to do, it's highly regulated, and there's no for-profit industry around organ donation. This story has nothing to do with lifesaving organ donations. As for donating your body to science for research, that's a little more complicated. So to help make that more clear, we spoke with one of the leading experts in the industry who shared with us the best way to make sure our intentions are followed. Dr. Tom Champney from the Lewis School of Medicine at the University of Miami...

[00:44:32] Thomas Champney: So I teach anatomy to the first year medical students here at the University of Miami. And with that, we run a body donation program that's actually part of the Anatomical Board of the State of Florida. So we have a body donate--, donor program in which we have people sign up, donate their bodies, and we provide their bodies to medical schools and other healthcare institutions here in South Florida. So I've been doing this here for about 10 years, and I have a, a, a large interest in making sure that these individuals are treated appropriately and ethically. So besides running the program, I also write quite a bit and serve on comm--, on numerous committees that look into the ethical handling of human tissues.

[00:45:16] Bob: So to begin, I asked Thomas to explain the difference between organ donation and body donation.

[00:45:22] Thomas Champney: If you, if in any way you say you want to do organ donation, that is totally separate from what's happening with the body broker programs or the body donation programs. They, these are two very separate pathways, and if you want to donate your organs, you will be, you will come under many of the rules and regulations, et cetera, that occur for organ donation. Body donation, as it is now, you have to sign up separately. It's a separate pathway, a separate program that occurs, and is no way in some way, in no way related to the organ donation that would occur by signing your license. Um, if you, even if you sign your license, that only means they have the opportunity to take your organs. It does not mean they can do, take your body for body donation or anything else.

[00:46:06] Bob: It does seem like it would be easy to confuse those things.

[00:46:08] Thomas Champney: Yes, it would, and we, we answer this question to many, many people. As people contact us about body donations, they say, "Well I've signed the back of my license, isn't that enough?" And we have to say, "No, we need, we need you to fill out these additional forms, get your informed consent," you know and, and provide them with, with additional information. They are two very distinct and separate programs.

[00:46:29] Bob: Okay, so why do we need a body donation program in the first place?

[00:46:34] Thomas Champney: So it, it's actually a, a, a very important topic. You may know from the distant past, we used to teach anatomy by people robbing graves or using unclaimed bodies, or unidentified bodies. And really that's not ethically appropriate because these individuals are not consenting. And it wasn't until the 1950s to 1960s that this started to change. And we started to have actual academically run body donation programs in which individuals in the community were asked to, asked to consent and donate their bodies after death to treat, to train medical professionals, right. And this is not just medical doctors, but also physical therapists, many people in the healthcare field. This is a kind of a win-win situation because these individuals can contribute something after they're dead. We get many, many people who have a very strong, altruistic bent, who really want to give back to society, and so this is one way they can do that, and, and they can help train future, medical care and healthcare practitioners.

[00:47:38] Bob: Why is it important for a first year medical student to have hands-on experience uh with, with actual bodies?

[00:47:45] Thomas Champney: Right. So that's a really excellent question. There's a multiple reasons for that. First off, there's just the ability to learn the anatomy, right, to figure out what the muscles, bones, and, and organs are. But beyond that, they get to see the variation in human form. They get to see large individuals, small individuals, people who have normal anomalies and people who have abnormal anomalies. We many times have upwards of 20 donors in the lab, and the students can look at those various donors and can really appreciate the variety that occurs in the human form. I like to say that we're not all built like Ford trucks, you know, just coming down an assembly line. And so it's valuable for students to appreciate that kind of normal variation that occurs. Above and beyond this kind of anatomical information, students learn a whole lot more in the lab as well around the donors. They, they appreciate and approach death and dying. This may be one of the first times they've seen a dead individual. And they can think about what death and dying means to them and how they're going to deal with that in their professional practice, right, as they, as they have patients who may die. They end up working together, and they end up working with their donor to really learn and appreciate how the body as a whole, works together. We also think this is really important because it, it allows them to develop some professional characteristics. You know, how are you going to talk to patients? How are you going to interact with uh, your colleagues. They can do this all in what we call the kind of safe space of the anatomy lab, when they can kind of help to develop some of those professional characteristics that will serve them well in their future practice.

[00:49:22] Bob: When body donation programs became more standardized last century, that was a big upgrade over grave robbing, but over time it became clear that there weren't enough bodies to go around, and so...

[00:49:34] Bob: I think many people will be surprised to find there is such a thing as a for-profit arm of the body broker business.

[00:49:43] Thomas Champney: Yeah, and that, that is a, a, a sad affair that developed, I would say in the 1990s into the 2000s, in which there was a realization that there was a greater need for bodies than there were that the academic body programs could provide. And so this allowed for, I would say, some unscrupulous individuals to realize that they could make a profit by having people donate their bodies for free, and yet they could then take those bodies, or sadly, those body parts, and separate them and sell them to others who primarily would be using them for ei--, for surgical training and other techniques.

[00:50:24] Bob: And most people will be surprised that almost anyone can participate in this marketplace.

[00:50:30] Thomas Champney: Very true. And in reality as, as you're probably aware through the body, body trade articles, they've ended up in various places and virtually anybody could buy a body part. There was very little rules or regulations, very little oversight that was done to determine who could get, who could get a body part and why.

[00:50:49] Bob: Virtually anyone can buy a body part. That's just shocking.

[00:50:53] Thomas Champney: Yeah, it's very sad, and, and the, the body trade Reuters articles really document that well.

[00:50:59] Bob: Somebody who is hearing this for the first time is going to immediately leap to, gosh, how do I avoid getting in this situation. I mean I, you know, I believe in research, donating your body is a great thing to do for the future, but how, how do you avoid getting into this mess?

[00:51:15] Thomas Champney: Yeah, that's a really good question. The, the simple answer I can give is to contact your local medical school, right, or your local university. Find out a, a good, what you think is your good, reputable, local university or medical school, and contact them and say, "I would really, I'm really interested in donating my body. What can I do?" And they would usually be able to direct you to their, either their anatomical board or their body donation program, and in virtually all cases that I know of, the academic programs are well run and do a good job. What's problematic of course is that these for-profit body brokers tend to advertise at hospices, or advertise in the newspapers, et cetera, saying that you should donate your body. So I would just encourage individuals if they see advertisements like that, to be wary and to, you know, really look into them in detail and see what they're, what they're, what the donation programs are, you know, are they for profit or not, and what their end goal is.

[00:52:14] Bob: For profit body brokers target people in hospice care. That's just shocking.

[00:52:21] Bob: That's probably not the best time to be making a choice like this, right?

[00:52:24] Thomas Champney: Exactly. That's a really good point. We encourage individuals to donate well before they're, they're sick or terminal or have any issues. Many of our donors donate 10 or 15 years before they die. You know, they're usually in their 60s or 70s, they're thinking about their end of life aspects, you know, setting their will up, et cetera, and this is when they will come and donate with us. Many of our donors are what we call legacy donors in which their parents donated to the program, and they were treated well, so now they're donating to the program. We have these kind of legacy donations. And as I said, we may be holding their paperwork for 10 or 15 years until they die. That can be quite different from the body broker programs which will go to hospices or go to nursing homes, go to those areas where people may not be in the best emotional state to be making those decision. Whether they're making them themselves or whether they're mak--, some family members are making them for them. In both of those cases, we don't think that's ethically appropriate, so for instance, our program, we'll not approach individuals in hospices or individuals in uh nursing homes. We just don't think that's an ethically appropriate way to approach these individuals.

[00:53:29] Bob: It is also unethical to use economic circumstances to target people for body donation. After all, funerals can be expensive. People should donate their bodies to science because they want to, not because they have to.

[00:53:44] Thomas Champney: That is very true, and, and, and that's a, a major concern of ours is that, is that they donate for economic reasons and not for altruistic reasons. And we do try to talk to our donors about that to make sure that, that they understand that they're, that they're donating for altruistic reasons and not for economic reasons, but that, that is, that is a, a difficult area to work around because there are many people that, that funeral costs can be quite excessive, and they, you know, they do not have the economic means to do that, and we're very concerned that some individuals may choose to do this just from an economic reason.

[00:54:23] Bob: Do things have to be this way? Why aren't there better rules around body donation programs?

[00:54:28] Thomas Champney: If I was king of the world, yes, I would love to see more regulations in this area. This is a, this is a not well regulated area. You may be aware there's a uniform Anatomical Gift Act that was started in the 1960s that encourages every state to have their own set of anatomical gift regulations and kind of tries to unify them, and so says these are the ones you should adopt. And, and virtually all states have adopted them. The, the, the problem with the UAGA is that it tends to be more organized towards transplants, towards living tissues and living tissue transplants. So that a much better organized system. There's, there's no for--, as you probably are well aware, there's no for-profit organizations that charge for people's kidneys and then, you know, sell kidneys et cetera. This is not allowable. But sadly in the non-transplant area, such as body, uh, the body donation programs, this is not as well regulated. And the, the, the laws and regulations around it are not in, in, not in the, the highest levels that they could be. So, this is an area that, that besides having state regulations, I think it would be very valuable to have federal reg--, leg--, legislation as well. There are other countries; England, Australia, New Zealand, that have a nationalized, anatomical acts that, that, that regulate how anatomical body parts can be utilized and not utilized, et cetera. And we do not have that, that, anywhere near that level of regulation. And that can be, that allows for these for-profit body brokers to, to grow and develop. I think there should be some sort of accreditation process. I would like to see that either occur at the national level, or at, through various organizations that, that any, any group or organization that wants to use human tissues, right, should have to somehow meet basic federal regulations and then be accredited by some organization. I mean we accredit accountants, right. We accredit lots of other businesses, but this business has very little accreditation. The only real accreditation that's out there is the uh AATB, the uh, American Association of Tissue Banks, and that is not a very strenuous accreditation. So I would like to see more regulatory mechanisms take place.

[00:56:55] Bob: And we also don't want to dissuade people from donating their bodies to science to, for the right kind of science, right. So help, help ease those people's fears if they're listening to this, and you know, they, they might be inclined, oh, forget it. I, I would, I don't want to do any of this. Help, help ease their minds.

[00:57:11] Thomas Champney: Correct. That's a, a really good point as well. The outcome of these, of this body donation is many times valuable, even if it was donated to a for-profit company. They may use those body parts to help develop a new surgical technique, or to help train some physical therapists or something. That outcome still might be good. The problem is, is the, the middlemen that are involved, right, how that individual who's donated their body and that those, that body then gets utilized, right. So we, we do want to encourage people to donate, and we'd like to encourage them to just be wise about their donation.

[00:57:47] Bob: And, and just to hammer home the point that if you're a person who is interested in donating your body to science, what's the best route to take?

[00:57:54] Thomas Champney: Yeah. At this point in time, I think the best thing to do is to find your local medical school or your local large university, and to contact someone there. Many times they have a little donate box on their website that you could look at. You could always call them. Many of these medical schools will actually have a, you know, an anatomy department or a, a, some--, something along that line that you can call and contact. And I, I would encourage you to actually talk to those individuals, get a good understanding of what the body donation program is, and then you can feel comfortable that your body is being donated appropriately. I would discourage you from just responding to an ad in the newspaper or to some flyer that might have been, you know, posted around at some point. It may, it will take a little bit of extra work, but I would really encourage you to go that extra mile.

[00:58:45] Bob: I always encourage people to go the extra mile in their research, and to do that research before they're under any kind of emotional or time pressure whenever possible. And we'd like to go the extra mile at The Perfect Scam today since the high expense of funerals has a lot to do with how the for-profit body broker business operates. We wanted to take just a couple of minutes to talk with someone at the Federal Trade Commission about ways to make better choices around funerals. It turns out, the FTC has something called The Funeral Rule, and it's very helpful to consumers. Here's Lois Greisman of the FTC.

[00:59:22] Bob: Why is it such a difficult and vulnerable time for consumers?

[00:59:25] Lois Greisman: It's a highly emotional time. They are preparing to say goodbye to their loved one. And it's incredibly stressful and also wrenching in many ways.

[00:59:37] Bob: And there's a whole lot of decisions to be made that, that people haven't encountered before often in their lives, right.

[00:59:42] Lois Greisman: That's exactly right. And they're decisions that have to be made quickly, sometimes within less than 24 hours, which just makes the situation all the more difficult.

[00:59:53] Bob: And, and there's some other things that have made this difficult through the years which is I suppose speaks to why the Funeral Rule exists in the first place. Can you talk to me about some of them?

[00:59:53] Lois Greisman: Sure. As I said, this is a highly emotional decision and often needs to be made very, very quickly. And you may or may not be physically near where your loved one has passed away, which adds further complications. What we have seen, and this is true historically, even though what you're doing is purchasing goods and services, people don't really view it as a traditional consumer transaction. And generally speaking, it's not. It's something that most people will have to do during the course of their own lifetime, sometimes on multiple occasions. But people tend not to shop for a funeral service or funeral goods the same way they might shop for anything else. And what people may not immediately realize until they get knee deep into it is that funerals are incredibly expensive. For many people, it may be the most expensive thing they have ever purchased in their lifetime, which is where the Funeral Rule comes in, because the whole purpose of it and the reason it's on the books is because people tend not to shop, again, it can be very time sensitive, and people were paying for stuff without realizing that it was running into the thousands and thousands of thousands of dollars putting them into a great deal of debt which their loved one never would have wanted.

[01:01:35] Bob: That just all so, that just terribly sad. Oh my goodness.

[01:01:38] Lois Greisman: It is terribly sad, and it aggravates an already emotionally difficult situation.

[01:01:45] Bob: So how does the Funeral Rule protect consumers? And why do some people feel it needs to be updated?

[01:01:52] Lois Greisman: This is rule that dates back to the early 1980s. The record that the FTC had amassed was that people did not know how much funerals cost. People, in fact, had no idea that they were going into thousands and thousands of dollars of debt, and it's because of that, the, the crux of the rule is to provide price disclosures. Here is a piece of paper that is going to list the types of expenses and is going to show you what options you have, and the purpose is so that you know just what this is going to cost you and you can decide this is too expensive, I want something different, or I want something different altogether.

[01:02:44] Bob: And, and again, it makes sense to me when you walk into a funeral home you, you don't see something like a, a tag on a car or a, a menu for a restaurant on the wall. So the prices aren't necessarily obvious when you walk in, but back then, uh you couldn't even ask for prices, right?

[01:03:02] Lois Greisman: I, funeral homes vary, but the gist of it was and, and what led the FTC to issue this rule was 'cause people didn't know, you're exactly right; prices are not posted next to caskets. There's not a posting of various fees and costs. What does a limousine cost, what does a hearse cost? Is embalming required or not? Embalming actually is not required except in unusual circumstances, yet people were paying hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars for embalming which was not necessary or required.

[01:03:38] Bob: So the Funeral Rule made it a, a requirement that um, that if I called the funeral home they would have to tell me what the prices were, right, but, but in the, in the internet age, in the modern age, it, it need, it needs to be revised, right. Can you talk about that effort?

[01:03:53] Lois Greisman: Sure. Well this is the issue currently before the Federal Trade Commission whether or not the prices, which when you walk into a funeral home, have to be handed to you on a list, what's called the general price list, or if you call up a funeral home, they are required to provide price information over the phone. But this is a rule that dates back before the internet age. And the rule does not currently require that prices be posted online. We see a lot of funeral homes with an online presence, but we see at this point relatively few providing those prices online, and what is before the commission is to consider whether to make the same requirements that apply when you walk into a funeral home, here's the price list, here are your options, whether to transfer that requirement to the online space, and it's, it's controversial, and uh, it's an issue that has been already under review for some period of time, and that review is going to continue for, for at least a, a good little while.

[01:05:00] Bob: The FTC has a web page devoted to this called "Shopping for Funeral Services," which you can find using a search engine. And Lois has some specific recommendations for people who are planning a funeral or even thinking about doing that ahead of time, which is a good idea.

[01:05:17] Lois Greisman: Yes, it's generally referred to as Pre-Need. And that is well, you can actually arrange for the funeral in advance. Again, that takes a fair amount of shopping, a fair amount of looking at prices, comparing prices; make sure you are dealing with a reliable and reputable funeral home. So that's where, where you actually pay for it or pay for a good part of it in advance.

[01:05:42] Bob: You know I always think during really difficult times like this you know there's the people who are the closest to the, the loved one who's deceased who are just overwhelmed, um, but sometimes there's people, you know, cousins or in-laws or something who aren't quite as emotionally involved and it, it's good to, to deputize one or two of those people to take care of some of these more uh, these, these more difficult details. What do you think about that?

[01:06:03] Lois Greisman: That's a great idea. And if you are going to do an in-person visit to a funeral home, bring a friend who is not quite as, as emotionally involved as you are, because they may be a better listener, and they may help you talk through some of the options with the funeral director and think about what it is you really want, what your loved one would really want. And make choices at this incredibly difficult time. As difficult as it is, think about what you’re buying, think about maybe comparing prices from one funeral home to another funeral home. Go online, see what you can find out. Go in person. They're required to hand you a general price list. They're required to hand you price information on caskets. If you don't go in person, call them up. Ask them for that price information. These are purchases that cost thousands and thousands of dollars. You do not want to go in debt. Your loved one would not want you to go in debt.

(MUSIC OUTRO)

[01:07:23] 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.

END OF TRANSCRIPT

In part 2, a call from Reuters journalist Brian Grow confirms Diana’s worst fears about what really happened to her stepfather’s remains. As Brian digs deeper into the story, the truth he uncovers about Sunset Mesa Funeral Home and the body brokering scheme is worse than anyone could have imagined. The conviction of Megan Hess brings some needed closure to families devastated by her shocking betrayal of trust.

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