Grieving wife, stepdaughter learn dark truth about missing cremated remains

Click to read the Reuters series, The Body Trade

By my calculations … at the low end, she may have stolen 3% of the population of Montrose.

Last week I introduced the story of Diana McBride, who had just begun a quest to discover the truth after her step-dad’s cremains went missing following his untimely death. When Diana’s mom, Shirley Hollenback, showed up at the funeral home to pick up “Cactus,” he was nowhere to be found. A few days later, the owner — Megan Hess — offered up a host of excuses, but none of them satisfy Diana.  Then, a few weeks later, Diana finds herself on the phone with Reuters reporter Brian Grow, who says he is investigating the dark side of the for-profit body parts industry.

Brian’s months-long reporting journey had led him to Sunset Mesa, and he thinks he knows what really happened to Cactus. Diana and Shirley are remarkably open to the truth, however dark it really is.

You can listen to the conclusion of this episode by clicking on the play button below, or by clicking on this link. Below there, I’ve included a partial transcript in case podcasts really aren’t your thing. This story was very hard to tell, but I’m incredibly grateful that Diana shared it with us. I’m also grateful for the incredible work by Brian and the rest of the Reuters team.  If you listen, I hope you’ll pay attention to the painstaking efforts of the journalists involved as they reported the story. And more important, how they balanced their quest for truth with respect for victims. Good journalists do this kind of work every day all around the world; it’s a good reminder about how the profession really works.

But most important, I am in awe of the grace and courage shown by Diana and her mom as they work to find the truth. I hope you’ll listen so you can hear directly from Diana about dealing with grief and loss under almost unimaginable circumstances.

Also, if you missed part 1, you can click here to listen or press play below

 

 

[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.

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About Bob Sullivan 1648 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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