One after the other they filed up to the microphone Saturday, several dozen people with little in common but this.
Though few of them had met in person before that day, they understood each other.
They’d assembled in green, sunny, Confluence Park, in Delta, to bear witness. To say their loved ones’ names out loud — and to relate what FBI investigators told them had become of their loved ones’ mortal remains.
Debra Schum of Hotchkiss, who organized the event, went first, stating the name of her best friend, LoraLee Johnson, who died in June 2017. Before she had a chance to retrieve Johnson’s cremains from Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors in Montrose, the FBI reportedly told Schum, Johnson’s body was sold.
To this day, no one knows where it is.
Others then shared what the FBI reportedly told them.
“Gerald’s dismembered body parts were located in three different states. His head is still missing.”
“Brian’s lower arms, knees and feet were sold to different buyers.”
“Dolores’ head and torso were sold. … It is unknown who bought her limbs.”
“His head, hands, wrist, feet and ankles were all sold. I don’t know if the ashes I got were his. I have a feeling they weren’t him.”
“My dad’s body was sold. We’ve since found pictures of him online.”
Julliette Engebretsen’s husband, Roy, passed away in April 2016, and Engebretsen’s body was taken to Sunset Mesa. Juliette and their daughter, Ellie Young, were in attendance on Saturday at Confluence Park. They are suspicious about where Roy Engebretsen’s remains truly are.
“We had no idea about any of this until we watched a story on TV about it, and read about it in the Montrose Daily Press,” Young recalled. This was in February, after the news broke that Sunset Mesa was under investigation by the FBI. “We looked at each other and said, ‘What?’ We got out the urn.”
Although people expect cremains to resemble fine powder, in reality, they are more akin to coarse sand. Roy Engebretsen’s cremains contained strangely shaped, half-inch-long objects that neither Ellie nor Julliette could make sense of. Ellie intends to re-submit a questionnaire to the FBI — she already did so once, earlier this year — as well as email the agency at firstname.lastname@example.org about her father’s remains.
“My parent’s CB handles were ‘Romeo’ and ‘Julliette,’” Ellie Young recalled.
“We were married 56-and-a-half years, and still liked each other 99.99 percent of the time,” Engebretsen said.
Now Engebretsen is left to wonder whether her husband’s ashes are his. She described the range of emotions, from taking in news reports to discovering the disturbing contents of the urn to pondering what it might mean.
“You go from disbelief to anger,” she said. “And then there’s just a sick sadness.”
PENDING LAWSUIT, ONGOING INVESTIGATION
Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors and Organ Donor Services, Inc. — a so-called “body broker” business selling human parts from cadavers for use in medical research — were both operated by Megan Hess of Montrose. The businesses were closed earlier this year. A lawsuit against Sunset Mesa by the family of Gerald “Cactus” Hollenback “alleging fraud, outrageous conduct, breach of conduct and violation of the Colorado Consumer Protection Act” is scheduled to go to trial (in) March, according to the Montrose Daily Press. The suit alleges, among other things, that Hollenback’s body was transported to Sunset Mesa clad only in pajamas, yet his cremains included fragments of a zipper and a wristwatch.
State regulators cited “the return of cement mix to one family instead of ashes, and the return to Shirley Hollenback of someone other (than) Cactus,” as the Daily Press put it, in its decision to suspend Hess’ funeral home and crematory licenses.
In August, Hess signed an agreement with the state stating that she had “permanently relinquished the registration to operate Sunset Mesa,” the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel reported, “and agreed to never submit another application for any funeral establishment for which she is the designee.”
The agreement “ends the state’s disciplinary proceedings involving the funeral home and crematory, though the FBI’s criminal investigation continues.”
Attempts to reach Hess for this story were unsuccessful, but she has denied the allegations in the state’s licensure suspension. She has also denied the charges in the lawsuit. Among her objections: The suit should not be allowed to go forward because the complainants “suffered no actual injury.”
Family members at Confluence Park would likely see this differently. On Saturday, they spoke of lives turned upside down. Of shock, guilt, anger and pain that doesn’t go away.
“People have said, ‘Stop obsessing,’ but obsessing (means focusing on) one little thing,” Schum remarked to the crowd of her loved one’s disappearance. “This is not a little thing. It is overwhelming and consuming and horrifying. Nobody had our permission for this. None of us would have agreed to any of these grotesqueries.”
“All I have is a cancelled check for my mom’s cremation,” said Rebecca Neill of Cedaredge. “The FBI told me Sunset Mesa sent her embalmed remains someplace in 2015,” Neill said through tears.
Hess was on the premises at the Grand Junction facility in which Neill’s mother passed away, and offered Neill “a deal” to transport her mother’s body to Montrose — a savings of $100 — “because she ‘happened to be going back to Montrose, anyway,’” Neill recalled. She took Hess up on her offer, and remains haunted by the outcome: “Our emotions are all over the place. My mom’s gone, we can never get her back, and part of the guilt is that I agreed to let Megan take her body to Montrose in order to save $100.”
“You’re horrified and scared and depressed,” said Terri Reid, whose husband, William Reid, died in 2016 and whose body was taken to Sunset Mesa. “The biggest part of it for me is anger, and being lied to,” Reid said. “My husband and I were supportive of organ donations, and we had a plan. We were together 39 years, and we were going to be together forever” by combining their ashes. “That’s gone,” Reid said. “My husband’s body was picked up from our home in March of 2016; I was told by the FBI that it was shipped out of Sunset Mesa around 8 a.m. the next morning. The FBI doesn’t know where it was shipped. I have none of his remains, and a fake death certificate. They took my trust and stomped it into the dust. I’ll never trust anybody again.”
Family members spoke of the guilt they felt for referring friends to Sunset Mesa. Reid lives in a small community of seniors called Cherry Acres in Cory, outside Delta.
“At least six out of the 15 families there have been affected,” she said.
Lee Phillips, who was at Confluence Park on Saturday, is a resident of Cherry Acres as well. “The FBI called me in and asked for my husband’s cremains,” she said.
The law enforcement agency then reported back. “My husband Frank Mazza’s body and my best friend’s body were both sold in their entirety. So was my friend James Dagnan’s body,” Phillips alleged. “We thought we were doing what was best by our families. I feel horrible because some people took their loved ones to Sunset Mesa because of me.
“When Frank was dying, he told me he wanted me to take his body out into the woods and leave him for the coyotes,” Phillips added. “I think I would have felt better if I had done that. At least I would have known where he was. I keep saying, ‘I’m sorry, Frank. I’m sorry.’ We have to live with this forever. We don’t want it to happen to anybody else.”
“The FBI told me more than 2,000 bodies were shipped out of Sunset Mesa, and 800 people took their ashes in to be examined,” Neill said. Given that Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors and Organ Donor Services were on the same premises, the financial temptation to sell bodies for “donation” (instead of, say, cremating them) was great. Earlier this year, a series by the Reuters News Agency entitled “The Body Brokers” reported Hess’ price list for selling body parts. She charged $1,000 for a torso, $1,200 for a pelvis with upper legs, $500 for heads and $250 for a knee, according to the news agency. Donor Services could, in theory, make much more money by selling body parts piecemeal than by cremating a single body (Hess reportedly told an employee that she made as much as $40,000 in at least one week selling body parts).
Earlier this year, the website Manta.com, which tracks small businesses, reported that Donor Services had revenues of $384,559.
“It’s not about the money” Neill insisted. “Hess needs to be held accountable. Even if she only gets a year’s prison sentence for every body, that’s 2,000 years.”
“Megan presented herself as such a lovely lady who wanted to be your friend,” a dignified older woman told the crowd. “She had a huge Christmas party for everyone at the mortuary. The story was, we were all family. I can’t believe she presented herself as family. She got us at our weakest moment. I hope she gets her just due.” There was quiet applause.
The FBI is still investigating.
Meanwhile, the families' lives remain up in the air.
“The worst of it is the waiting,” Lee Phillips said. “We understand what happened, but we don’t know what to do, or how to react.”
Lisa Panevics, who said her ex-husband’s body was sold in its entirety by Sunset Mesa, according to the FBI, and subsequently tracked down by her daughter online — the cadaver was “for sale or rent” by a medical equipment company — described the Confluence Park get-together as, in fact, a confluence.
“It’s like a group of people coming together from all walks of life after a nuclear blast, saying, ‘What happened?’”
Panevics explained the desire to stay in touch, and to share information. “What will we do?” she said. “What do we know?”
Megan Hess has been charged with no crime. The FBI may be investigating, but all she faces is a lawsuit next March.
“She’s out there, living her life,” someone said. “She’s fine. She’s selling hotdogs at the Montrose County Fair.” She’s tending businesses, culinary endeavors, it seems, purveying a new spice blend, confections from Truffles & Company (one flavor is reportedly “Death By Chocolate”), all-beef hot dogs through a mobile hot dog cart called PF Franks (“a play on P.F. Changs”), and samplings of wine and cheesecake at an event in her home.
Hess’s mother, Shirley Koch, worked alongside her daughter at Donor Services, Hess told Reuters. Koch reportedly bragged that a collection of gold crowns extracted from cadavers’ teeth financed a family trip to Disneyland.
Recently, Hess wished her mum happy trails astride a “registered AQHA mare,” as she described the gray steed pictured on Facebook (Koch was a Montrose County Rodeo contestant on the Quarter Horse).
“Good luck,” Hess wrote Koch. “God speed for a safe ride.”