It did keep plaguing me, you know, what really happened? Did they mix up his body? Did they lose his body? Little did I know what really happened. Really the horror, the nightmare was yet to come.
I’ve hosted nearly 75 Perfect Scam podcasts during the past two years, but today we drop one of the most important and shocking episodes we’ve ever done. I’m not going to lie, working on this story has left me disturbed. But the truth, however awful, deserves to be told. So I hope you’ll give this story a listen, and I hope it helps some of you deal better with end-of-life issues in your families. You can listen by clicking here, or by clicking the play button below. Below that, I’ve written a synopsis of today’s episode — part 1. You can read a full transcript here
When her stepdad “Cactus” died suddenly, Diana McBride was 1,000 miles away. Her mom — in remote Montrose, Colorado — wanted to take care of all the details herself and urged Diana to wait a few days before flying in from California. And that’s how Diana found herself on the phone a few days later with Megan Hess, who operated Sunset Mesa funeral home, trying to figure out why Megan couldn’t find Cactus’ cremated remains.
Cactus was a giant of a man, a Korean war veteran, who used to entertain his step-kids by ripping phone books with his bare hands. Cactus, born Gerald Hollenback, and Diana’s mom Shirley moved from California to Colorado after the kids were all grown up. They had a simple, beautiful mountain life there, near what’s known as the Little Switzerland of the West.
A few years ago, Cactus began suffering from dementia, but his death was still a surprise. The family had discussed cremation, and Cactus had seen many billboards advertising inexpensive services provided by Sunset Mesa. He urged Shirley to take him there when the time came.
“Don’t spend a lot of money … just have me cremated,” Diana recalled him saying. And there was another reason: “They had a dog for many, many years that they loved dearly, and that dog had died, and they had the dog cremated. So they had the cremains of their dog in their spare bedroom, and my stepdad said, ‘You know, when I go, I would like to be cremated and you mix my ashes with Mitzi’s … he wanted to be with Mitzi.’ ”
After the death, things happened quickly. When Shirley returned to Sunset Mesa to pick up the remains — insurance check in hand to pay for the services — a worker there said Cactus was nowhere to be found. Shirley went home empty-handed. Diana sprung into action. Then there was a phone call with Sunset Mesa that went badly, So Diana flew to Colorado as soon as possible. Meanwhile, a banker’s box full of ashes with the name G Hollenback does appear, but something seems very wrong.
If there were some kind of mixup due to incompetence, Megan wanted to know. But she spent a lot of time discussing with her husband what her next step should be and trying to determine – what’s really best for her mom?
“My husband said, ‘Diana, something went wrong. They either, either mixed up the bodies, they’re not organized there. … However… if your mom believes that she has Cactus, isn’t that what’s most important? Do you want your mom to go on and worry about whether or not she has him? Because at this point, there’s really nothing that can be done.”
So, the couple visits mom but decides not to share their concenrs. Still, it haunts Diana. Then, a few weeks later, she gets a call from an investigative reporter at Reuters. He’s looking into something known as the “body broker” industry, and he wants to talk.
Episode 1 ends there. Next week, we’ll share precisely what Reuters has found, the truth about what happened to Cactus, and why there might be 500 or more other Cactus stories coming out of this small Colorado town.