Colorado funeral home known for history of misconduct

June 16, 2018 GMT

DENVER (AP) — When Jerry Espinoza died, after a brief and punishing battle with cancer, his children chose to divide his ashes.

One son, also named Jerry, enshrined his share in necklaces for family members. A daughter, Stephanie, placed hers in a small urn she kept in her home. And another son, Bobby, traveled with his portion and a group of friends and family high into the San Juan mountains because his father had wanted to see Lizard Head Pass one more time.

This was in 2014.

They didn’t know then that the southwestern Colorado funeral home that performed the cremation, Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors, also housed a business that sold human body parts to research labs. They didn’t know about the complaints — which would come to number nearly a dozen — that Colorado regulators were receiving against Sunset Mesa but would spend years investigating before taking action. They didn’t know that Colorado’s oversight of the funeral industry is among the most lax in the country.

When they released the dust to the mountain winds, they felt at peace. But they didn’t know the heartache ahead.

“He told Bobby, ‘That’s where I want my ashes thrown,’ so that’s where we did it,” the younger Jerry Espinoza said of that day in the mountains.

Then he paused.

“Of course, it wasn’t his ashes.”

In Colorado, death is sometimes just the beginning of the story.

At funeral homes and crematories across the state, bodies have been lost, mistaken, stolen from and now, perhaps, even sold.

“We sort of have a black eye, nationally,” said Steffani Blackstock, the executive director of the Colorado Funeral Directors Association. “People think that anything goes in Colorado.”

That’s not quite true, she said. Mistakes and misbehavior are rare.

But a Denver Post review of state disciplinary records and license registrations found multiple instances of misconduct and reasons for concern.

In several cases, businesses performed funerals or cremations without active licenses. In two cases, one from 2011 and another from 2014, businesses cremated the wrong body.

In 2015, a Denver funeral home left the cremated remains of multiple people in a storage unit, where they were later auctioned off.

And, in 2016, two men from Acumen Funeral and Cremation Services picked up a body at the El Paso County morgue in a rented U-Haul van and then left the body in a detached garage next to a vacant house. Colorado Springs police discovered the body three days later — after an odor complaint — and seized it. But it took two more days before one of the men from Acumen called police to report that he was “missing a body.”

When a detective investigated further, he learned that the registered address for the funeral home was really just a unit in a residential fourplex — unfurnished and empty. State regulators suspended Acumen’s license less than a month later, but it would be nine months more before the license was officially revoked.

In an interview, Karen McGovern, the deputy director of legal affairs for Colorado’s Division of Professions and Occupations, said the state must provide every business its proper due process during the course of an investigation.

But Colorado’s system for regulating funeral homes and crematories also has significant limitations.

The state is the only one in the country that does not license funeral workers. The Colorado Office of Funeral Home and Crematory Registration has no employees dedicated solely to it and an annual budget of less than $85,000. (McGovern said no industry regulated by the Division of Professions and Occupations has regulators assigned exclusively to it.)

Unlike in several other states, Colorado regulators do not conduct inspections of funeral homes. They do not perform background checks on new applicants for funeral home or crematory licenses. (McGovern said they have no authority to do either.)

They do not proactively verify that addresses listed are legitimate or that people have the qualifications they claim to, and they do not systematically track the actions of bad actors who may hop from business to business.

“We have the regulatory tools that the legislature deems appropriate,” McGovern said. “And that’s the framework we work within.”

Overall, McGovern said the Office of Funeral Home and Crematory Registration is one of the smaller programs in her division. It receives about 20 complaints a year, and she said it may also investigate if regulators notice something off with an application or receive a tip. But the integrity of the system largely depends on funeral home and crematory owners telling the truth.

“Registrants sign the application and requisite disclosures under the penalty of perjury,” Lee Rasizer, a spokesman for the division, wrote in an email in response to questions from The Post. “If conflicting information is subsequently discovered, an investigation is initiated.”

Blackstock’s association for funeral directors helps set best practices. But only about 65 of Colorado’s approximately 265 licensed funeral homes and crematories are members. And the association’s attempts to get the legislature to require greater regulation have repeatedly fallen short.

“It has worked to some degree,” Blackstock said of the state’s funeral home regulations, which were adopted in 2009. “But we’re still dealing with some wrong people, people who have done harm.

“They, right now, do not have the right regulatory tools to do anything about that.”

And in this environment, Sunset Mesa flourished.

She was quiet and kept in the background, the younger Jerry Espinoza remembered.

That was his first — and, until earlier this year, only — impression of Megan Hess, the owner of Sunset Mesa. Now, when he thinks about her, he wonders what she did with his father’s body.

Hess purchased Sunset Mesa in 2011, according to a state document. She built the funeral home and crematory, both based in Montrose, into a southwestern Colorado empire.

She had arrangements with coroners in multiple counties to transport bodies and provide services, according to Matthew Boyle, who previously owned a different funeral home in Montrose and who feuded with Hess. For a time, she owned a funeral home in Delta, and she also provided floral arrangements for funeral services and established an events business in a building next door to Sunset Mesa.

In 2015, when she opened a now-defunct, low-cost cremation service, she twice referred to Sunset Mesa as a “multimillion-dollar business” in an interview with the Montrose Daily Press.

“Why go to someone who owns their own crematory?” she asked, rhetorically, the Daily Press reporter. “Because then you know you’re getting your loved one’s ashes back.”

But yet another business Hess owned has thrown that statement into question.

In 2009, according to business records, Hess registered the nondescript trade name Donor Services. Eventually operating in the back of Sunset Mesa, Donor Services was a so-called “body broker,” a business that sells human body parts harvested from donated cadavers to research labs or medical schools.

Together, Sunset Mesa and Donor Services were unlike any other business in America — the only funeral home co-located with a body broker, according to an extensive Reuters news agency investigation published this year. At the time, there was nothing inherently illegal about the arrangement under state or federal law.

“It’s for the good of the world, and I like to help people,” Hess told Reuters in a 2016 interview that was included in this year’s story.

But Reuters also talked to former employees, who told of a Disney vacation for Hess’s family funded by gold teeth extracted from bodies and claims of $40,000 from selling human body parts in a single month. A Donor Services price list obtained by Reuters quoted torsos for $1,000 apiece and heads for $500 apiece.

Less than a month after the Reuters story, the FBI raided Sunset Mesa. And six days after that, the state Office of Funeral Home and Crematory Registration suspended its license — noting, in its decision, complaints dating to 2014.

(Hess, whose cellphone has a standard message saying that she is not accepting calls, could not be reached for this article. She has made no public comments since the FBI raid in February, although she did tell the Montrose Daily Press in a January statement, “It has been devastating to read such false statements about my business and character.”)

In the suspension order, state regulators described one instance in which purported cremated remains returned to a family turned out to be cement mix. During the FBI raid, the order stated, investigators observed bags of cement at Sunset Mesa.

And that was when the Espinoza family first began to question what they had scattered on Lizard Head Pass.

Jerry Espinoza took one of the necklaces and compared what he had been told were his father’s ashes to ashes he had from a friend who died earlier.

“They weren’t even close,” he said.

He talked with his siblings, and they decided to send a sample of the remaining ashes to a lab to be tested. When his brother Bobby called with the results, Jerry said he already knew in his heart what the answer would be, but actually hearing it aloud jolted him: The lab concluded their father’s supposed ashes weren’t of human origin.

“I went in and told the boss, ‘I’m going home,’ ” he said. “I took a drive.”

He would soon discover that his bewilderment wasn’t unique.

Even in glamorous Telluride, Gina Pace was known for style.

She was an aesthetician, artist and furniture-maker. She also fixed cars. She was, as a friend later described her, “the most beautiful multitude of glorious contradictions.”

Last year, she, just shy of her 51st birthday, and her dog were killed in a car crash. By the time her daughter, Nastassja Olson, arrived in Colorado from her home in Portland, Oregon, Pace’s body was already at Sunset Mesa. The coroner in San Miguel County said it was one of their preferred funeral homes and crematories, even though it was more than an hour’s drive away.

But Olson’s suspicions about Sunset Mesa began with her very first phone call with Hess.

“She said, ‘Oh, we were about to embalm her,’ ” Olson said. “I said I didn’t want her to be embalmed. I wanted to cremate her. So I thought that was odd.”

The doubts continued. Hess posted an online obituary, with an option to donate flowers through Sunset Mesa, even though the family asked her not to, Olson said. At the funeral home, Olson felt that Hess was hovering and wouldn’t leave the family alone with the body. During a viewing for family, Olson said Hess freaked out when an uncle tried to move a blanket that covered Pace’s body. When the uncle then hugged his sister’s body, he said it felt as if her arm was already detached.

Olson said she remembers Hess specifically asking her if her mother was a “donor.” Hess didn’t explain what that meant, Olson said, but Olson’s answer was emphatic: No.

Then, earlier this year, she read about the investigation into Sunset Mesa, and she opened the urn that she thought held some of her mother’s ashes. Inside, she found strange bits of metal among the remains, even though her mom had no metal on her clothing when she was cremated. Olson contacted the FBI.

“Finding that information out that you could potentially not even have the cremains, the last little bit of your loved ones, is just heartbreaking,” Olson said. “To have to live that all over again and have just the mystery of what was done to them without your consent.”

In the months since the raid, the FBI has been deluged with calls and emails. Dozens, maybe even hundreds of people, from across the country now fear that they, too, could have been a victim of Sunset Mesa.

In Montrose, a woman named Shirley Hollenbeck has sued Hess and Sunset Mesa, alleging that workers there were unable to find her husband’s cremated remains when she came to pick them up. When they finally were delivered, she said, they also had strange pieces of metal in them. A forensic analysis she commissioned concluded that they probably were not her husband’s remains, according to the lawsuit.

In Dallas, a woman named Kayla Lyons told a local television station that an FBI agent contacted her after her mother died during a trip to Colorado and was cremated by Sunset Mesa.

“He asked if I had signed any type of paperwork authorizing her body to be donated, and I said, ‘Absolutely not.’ ” Lyons told WFAA-TV. “That’s when he told me, ‘I regret to inform you we have receipts showing where your mom’s body parts have been sold.’ ”

There have been so many calls that the FBI has set up a special phone line and email address, and even those have been overwhelmed. The last time the Espinoza family asked for an update, they were told to wait for a mass email with more information. (An FBI spokeswoman told The Post that there is no timeline for the investigation.)

In the meantime, families have set up a Facebook group for potential victims. It currently has more than 130 members.

“It’s just a very odd feeling,” Olson said. “She’s gone, so you ask, does it really matter? But it really, really does matter. It’s not fair to do something like that without your consent.”

Colorado’s oversight of funeral homes and crematories is based on a premise: The state, in this industry, regulates businesses, not people.

“If the business is sold,” Rasizer, the spokesman for the Division of Professions and Occupations, wrote in an email, “the discipline remains with the registration, which is tied to the business.”

What that means is when someone breaks the rules at one funeral home or crematory, it doesn’t necessarily stick with them if they move to a second one. McGovern, the division deputy director, said division staff may recognize people from previous disciplinary cases and give their new businesses a closer look. But Blackstock, the head of the state funeral directors association, said Colorado’s weak rules for background checks mean that those who have engaged in misconduct in other states can find opportunity here.

She provided an example of how this works.

Late last year, the state revoked the license of a company called Heritage Cremation Provider, which had been under investigation for at least two years prior to the decision. The business, which existed mostly online and contracted for cremation services, had racked up multiple complaints and had an “F″ rating with the Better Business Bureau. Last June, the National Funeral Directors Association had sent out an alert warning states about Heritage and reported that at least six other states had moved to shut it down.

In an earlier suspension order, Colorado regulators faulted Heritage’s owners for not disclosing that they had been associated with funeral homes — and accusations of fraud and misconduct — in Florida; that they didn’t have a physical location in Colorado; and that they were using their Colorado registration to run unlicensed funeral operations in at least 11 other states.

The order also noted something curious: Heritage’s owners operated a second funeral business in Colorado called Legacy Funeral Services. But state regulators took no action against Legacy. And a Post reporter who visited Legacy’s registered address in Douglas County on Friday found that it is a virtual office where mail can be delivered but no staff is present.

Rasizer wrote in an email that he could not confirm whether the same owners still run Legacy because it is currently under investigation. Meanwhile, Legacy’s license in Colorado is fully active, with no disciplinary history noted.

There’s another example, and it stretches back several years to a now-closed funeral home.

In 2003, after Ann Szocinski’s teenage son, Brandon, was killed in an accident, she placed his ashes into a custom-carved box that she kept in his bedroom. There they sat for 13 years, the pain of his death never quite leaving her.

Then, in 2016, she read a newspaper article about the new owner of the Montrose funeral home where she had Brandon cremated. The owner, Matthew Boyle, told of discovering the cremated remains of 170 people in the basement of what was once called the Montrose Valley Funeral Home and which Boyle renamed Rose Memorial Parlour.

There was a list of names printed in the newspaper, and Szocinski scanned it anxiously. She saw Brandon’s.

“I totally flipped out,” she said. “I had no idea what they were talking about.”

Still confused, she contacted Boyle and told him that she had Brandon’s ashes already. Boyle said he looked inside the custom-carved box.

“With all due respect,” he remembers telling Szocinski, “I don’t think you do.”

To Boyle, who previously owned a funeral home in Pagosa Springs, the material looked more like kitty litter than any cremated remains he had ever seen.

The state didn’t investigate the abandoned remains in 2016, even though it garnered prominent news coverage, Boyle said. (In an email, Rasizer wrote, “We have no record of receiving a complaint related to the allegations.”)

Many of the remains in the basement dated back decades, to when a former district attorney named Frank Tucker — who had once been jailed for embezzlement — owned the business. When Tucker died, his wife, Debbie, took ownership.

But, in a 2016 interview with the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, Debbie Tucker said she had turned the management of the funeral home over to another woman by the time of Brandon Szocinski’s services. Ann Szocinski confirmed that the woman was the only person she dealt with for her son’s cremation.

“I just hope that lady gets what’s coming to her,” said Szocinski, who is trying to have what she was originally told were Brandon’s ashes tested.

Who was the woman? Szocinski’s voice growls when she says the name: “Megan Hess.”

The phone number for Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors is now disconnected.

The website is offline. The sign out front is gone.

In the months after the FBI raid, Hess pulled apart the pieces of her business. On Facebook, she has posted ads selling a black Cadillac, a boat, a coffee maker.

“Thank you to all my friends and family who have reached out during the last few weeks,” she wrote on Facebook in late January, prior to the FBI raid. “It hasn’t been easy (or pretty), but I’m just taking it a day at a time.”

Changes have come to state law, too. Last month, Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a bill that makes it illegal for funeral home or crematory owners to operate as a body broker. The new law also requires body brokers — known in the law as “nontransplant tissue banks” — to register with the state.

The Espinoza family say they are pleased with the new law. Maybe, Jerry Espinoza said, others won’t have to go through this.

But for the families affected by Sunset Mesa, there is still an ache from which no relief is near.

At one of the hearings for the recently signed bill, Jerry’s brother Bobby sat at a table in front of lawmakers and spoke until grief choked his voice.

“What did they do with my father?” he asked.

“Where did his remains go?”

“Where is he?”

But only silence answered back.

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Information from: The Denver Post,