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'A lot of people are at fault': former lawmaker says she tried to fix Colorado funeral industry years ago

Arrests in recent years raise questions about oversight
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Posted at 9:28 PM, May 21, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-22 00:45:23-04

DENVER — In the shadow of multiple arrests of Colorado funeral directors in recent years, a respected former lawmaker has stepped forward saying she tried to fix the funeral industry more than a decade ago.

“A lot of people are at fault, it needs to be exposed,” said Debbie Stafford, who represented House District 40 from 2000 to 2009. "It needs to be stopped.

Stafford was also reacting to a series of reports Denver7 Investigates has produced during the past two years on problems in funeral homes that have led to criminal charges against funeral directors.

In March of last year, following a lengthy federal investigation, the owner of Sunset Mesa funeral home in Montrose and her mother were arrested in charged illegally selling body parts or entire bodies without the consent of family members. Documents from the U.S. Attorney's Office say in at least a dozen instances between 2010 and 2018, Megan Hess and her mother Shirley Koch did not follow family wishes in the handling of their loved ones.

In another example, the coroner of Lake County, Shannon Kent, now faces more than a dozen criminal charges, including four felonies for abusing a corpse resulting from what law enforcement discovered in the basement of his Leadville funeral home.

Kent, at one time, operated six funeral homes in six different mountain communities in Colorado. Last year, he voluntarily surrendered his licenses to the Colorado Department of Regulatory Affairs in the wake of the department’s own investigation.

The two recent examples raise questions about oversight of the funeral industry in Colorado. It's an issue that has been controversial for nearly two decades.

“Unconscionable, should never have happened,” Stafford said in response to the recent Denver7 investigations into Kent’s Leadville funeral home.

“The lack of regulation is huge,” said Heath Carroll, one of the state’s most respected funeral directors.

Carroll, the funeral director for Carroll-Lewellen Funeral Homes, says the reason funeral homes have been the site of shocking news headlines in recent years is, in part, due to the limited regulation and oversight authority currently in place in Colorado.

“An inspector walking into that building would have smelled the decomposition and filth that was going on in that basement” Carroll said, referring to what law enforcement discovered in the basement of Kent’s funeral home in Leadville.

Carroll was asked by Lake County law enforcement to help process the four bodies they located in the facility. The findings included a badly decomposed body of a stillborn baby in a coffin.

Carroll agreed the recent reports by Denver7 should be a “wake up” call for state lawmakers. He also pointed out that current law in the state prevents the state’s regulatory body from inspecting funeral homes, and because that didn’t happen, it delayed any government accountability for the Kent.

Funeral home directors are currently licensed and regulated by DORA, but state lawmakers over the past two decades have declined to give DORA the ability to inspect the funeral homes.

“I do think it is notable. I understand where people would be confused,” said Karen McGovern with DORA.

Her response came when Denver7 Investigates pointed out that her agency has the authority to inspect nail salons but currently can not inspect funeral homes in Colorado.

McGovern admitted the inability to inspect funeral homes impacted her agency’s ability to quickly recognize the issues inside the Leadville funeral home.

“I would say the one piece that would have enabled us to move faster would have been inspection authority," McGovern said.

“It says we have some work to do as a state legislature,” said Colorado Rep. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon.

Roberts' district includes many of the funeral homes formerly operated by Kent.

“Upon seeing your [Tony Kovaleski] investigation and all these stories that have come out,” Roberts said “this is something we need to look into and improve.

Roberts says he anticipates sponsoring a bill in next year’s legislative session, and he expects bipartisan support.

During Stafford’s time as a state representative, she worked to provide legislative guard rails to improve the funeral industry in Colorado.

It’s a promise for a legislative “fix” that could have happened 15 years ago when oversight legislation proposed by Stafford was vetoed in the eleventh hour by then-Gov. Bill Owens.

“We gave clear and compelling evidence that Colorado needed to bring oversight and shine a light on that industry,” Stafford said. “I could not believe there would be so much push back, and the push back came from some parts of the industry that didn’t want to be held accountable.”

Stafford was asked in light of the recent developments at Colorado funeral homes how she sees the impact of the accusations. She responded with one word: “atrocity.”