The former director of a funeral home in Colorado was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison for dissecting the bodies she was entrusted with and selling the body parts without her clients’ permission.
Megan Hess, 46, was sentenced on Tuesday for the scheme after pleading guilty to fraud in July.
Reuters reports that Hess operated a pair of businesses — Sunset Mesa funeral home and Donor Services, which sources human body parts — from the same location in Montrose, Colorado.
The former funeral director’s mother, Shirley Koch, 69, was also implicated in the scheme. Koch pleaded guilty to fraud and was given 15 years in prison. Her duties reportedly included cutting up the bodies to prepare them for sale, according to court records.
Hess and her mother were targeted by federal agents after they were included in a 2016-2018 Reuters investigative series into the unregulated sale of body parts in the US. People who worked with the former funeral director told the outlet that the women were illegally dismembering bodies.
The former funeral director reportedly told clients that their loved ones had been cremated — and charged them $1,000 for the service — but in reality was chopping up the bodies and selling their parts for an additional profit.
According to prosecutors, the families would receive ashes containing refuse ash from trash cans and the remains of other cadavers mixed together.
FBI agents raided Hess’s business a few weeks after the investigative story was published, according to Reuters.
"Hess and Koch used their funeral home at times to essentially steal bodies and body parts using fraudulent and forged donor forms," prosecutor Tim Neff said, according to a court filing. "Hess and Koch’s conduct caused immense emotional pain for the families and next of kin."
Prosecutors went on to describe the "macabre nature" of Hess’s plot and said it was one of the most significant cases involving the sale of human body parts in recent US history.
US District Judge Christine Arguello called the case "the most emotionally draining case I have ever experienced on the bench," according to court records.
"It’s concerning to the court that defendant Hess refuses to assume any responsibility for her conduct," the judge added.
Per Reuters, Hess’ defense team claims their client has been unfairly maligned as a "witch," a "monster" and a "ghoul," when — they argue — she is simply a "broken human being" with a traumatic brain injury she reportedly suffered when she was 18. The defense reportedly tried to argue that the brain injury led to her body parts plot.
Hess’s mother, Ms Koch, did accept that what she did was wrong and offered an apology to the victims and the court for her actions.
The trial included the testimonies of 26 victims whose loved ones had been dismembered by Hess and her mother.
Hess cut up the mother of one victim, Erin Smith, and sold the deceased woman’s shoulders, knees, and feet.
"Our sweet mother, they dismembered her," the victim told the court. "We don’t even have a name for a crime this heinous."
According to Reuters, though organ harvesting and sales are illegal in the US, there are no laws prohibiting the sale of other body parts, like spines, heads, arms, and legs, so long as they’re used for research or educational purposes.
Hess did not break the law by selling the body parts, but rather broke the law by lying to the victims about the services she was providing.