GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. — Families involved in the Sunset Mesa funeral home case hoped to answer at least one question.
All the unknowns that surfaced after the FBI raided the Montrose business nine months ago left them uneasy, wondering if their loved ones’ bodies could have been involved in the allegations.
They just wanted to know if the cremains they received were likely human, if they could be their relatives.
The funeral home and its owner, Megan Hess, were accused of operating a body-broker operation under the same roof as the crematory, something state law allowed at the time. The investigation into the business came after years of complaints to the state agency overseeing funeral homes, accusations that Sunset Mesa cremated and embalmed bodies without permission, and allegations that families had received the wrong cremains or had received substitutes including dry concrete. Since then, two civil lawsuits have been filed by families who claim they did not receive their loved ones’ cremains.
But the answer, for some, unearthed more questions than relief.
One family, which asked to not be named, was shocked to find the cremains they had submitted for testing were, in fact, consistent with burned bone.
Normally this might have been a relief, but in this case, the family had already been notified by the FBI that agents had located most of the body parts from their loved one, which Hess allegedly sold without their permission.
“That begs the question, who do we have?” said the family member.
Some reports have revealed “inclusions” in the cremains, including staples, floral wire, bits of plastic and metal. This family member received news that there was a tooth cap in cremains, when their loved one only had dentures. This echoes a concern that arose in the first civil suit filed against Sunset Mesa and Hess by the family of Gerald “Cactus” Hollenbeck earlier this year. The cremains given to his widow were tested and found to be bone, but included parts of a zipper and watch, when he was wearing pajamas and no jewelry when his body was picked up.
“The deception goes so much deeper,” the family member said. “It raises a whole bunch of new questions. It’s lies upon lies at this point.”
Families receiving their results from the tests are discussing the outcomes and speculating as to what could have happened. Some think that bodies were cremated together and divvied up, topped off with dry concrete and distributed. The funeral home regularly received orders for specific body parts, according to another source familiar with the business dealings, but also sold whole bodies. According to the report from a state regulatory inspector who accompanied FBI personnel when they raided the funeral home, they found a station that appeared to be used for measuring cremains next to the crematory. The setup included a scale, a container of labeled cremains from another crematory, a trowel and buckets of an unknown substance as well as bags of dry concrete.
At this point, the family member said it’s about coming to terms with the idea that even if the cremains came back with results showing they were likely bone, it’s not possible to know if they belonged to a person or even several people if they were comingled. The limitations of the testing were communicated by the forensics team at the university from the beginning, and no one person’s cremains can be identified. “We’re thinking we all pretty much had a scoop of whatever,” the family member said. “They’re essentially all of ours and none of ours.”
Though the FBI has remained mum on details surrounding the investigation, families said they have been told there are at least 50 core cases involved in the Sunset Mesa case, and there are hundreds more who used the funeral home since it opened in 2010.
Roughly one-third of the 128 cremains samples submitted for testing to Colorado Mesa University were picked up Nov. 2, along with full reports detailing their analysis and whether the samples were likely bone or something else. While the tests cannot confirm the cremains are human, they were compared with test results from other substances, including kitty litter, concrete and bone, and the reports discuss the comparisons of results to those substances.
That afternoon, families came to the same place they dropped off their samples months ago, waited in the same lounge and shared a grim circumstance with each other. They discussed the case, horror stories of how they had been informed that their loved ones’ remains had been located elsewhere after being sold without permission, or how they had no idea of the final destination of their loved ones’ bodies.
Colorado Mesa University’s forensics and social sciences students took on the project to help support the families who wanted to get cremains tested and had used Sunset Mesa to handle their loved ones’ final arrangements. The question of whether cremains given back to the families were actually the decedents themselves is one that cannot be answered definitively, as DNA evidence is destroyed in the cremation process. However, tests revealed whether the substances were more likely to be bone or something else — like dry concrete, as has been found in some families’ cremains they received from the mortuary.
It’s not clear how many of the 128 samples submitted to the university’s volunteers for testing came back as consistent with bone or as another substance.
CMU Forensic Investigation Research Station Director Melissa Connor estimated each sample took roughly 10 hours to process and analyze, and said the staff and students spent more than 1,100 hours volunteering, cataloguing, sifting through samples, using magnets and metal detectors to find other substances and finalizing the reports.
“We’re grateful they put their trust in us,” said Jamie Johnson, a senior biology major who volunteered her time. “We learned the human aspect of our science,” added Sidney Potestio, a junior studying criminal justice.
Connor said she hopes knowing that some of the samples are, in fact, cremains of bone ash will bring some closure to families who received those results.
“Given some of the kerfuffles and questions surrounding Sunset Mesa, it doesn’t answer all the questions, but it’s the best we can do,” she said.
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