When Danielle McCarthy lost her husband suddenly on Father’s Day 2017, she had no idea the Western Slope funeral home she would use would become entangled in a FBI investigation involving body brokering with hundreds of other victims.
Danielle met David McCarthy Jr. when she was 17, and the two were married a year later. The McCarthys spent more than 20 years together, and had four children along the way. Their idyllic life was cut short on Father's Day in 2017, when David died. The family was living in Montrose at the time.
“Ultimately, what killed him was undiagnosed heart disease and a massive heart attack. So, he had the classic Widowmaker heart attack," Danielle told Denver7 over Zoom.
Danielle used Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors. Danielle said Megan Hess, one of the operators of the funeral home, presented professionally for the most part.
“She asked if he had a heart on his driver's license, and I said, 'Yes, he does. That's for live tissue donation, not deceased. Like, that's what that's for. Right? That's for a heart transplant, corneal implantation, those types of things, not, you know, dead tissue at this point.' And she backed off of that really quick," Danielle recalled.
As time went on, Danielle began to wonder about Hess. She remembers thinking something was off on the day Hess delivered what was supposed to be David's cremated remains, known as cremains.
“She put the bag down and it thumped, and she goes, 'Well, I had to remember to stop cutting on him because you needed ashes,'" Danielle said, still in disbelief. "Who says that to a widow of 25 years?”
While Danielle was dealing with the fog of grief, one of her sons handled most of the dealings with Hess and the funeral home. Then, she got a call from the FBI in 2018, after the State of Colorado shut down Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors, which doubled as a body broker.
“I was told that my husband had been dismembered and sold... My husband didn't feel any pain upon his death. It still doesn't stop the feeling that somebody murdered my dead husband," Danielle said. “Part of the phone call with the FBI was him asking if my sons would give DNA evidence to (test the cremains), and see if the FBI could retrieve the majority of David's body parts — would I like them back? And I said, 'Yes, of course I would, because he's supposed to be interned in the National Cemetery.'”
A few months later, Danielle got another call from the FBI, saying they were able to retrieve the majority of David's body parts, which became evidence in a federal case against the funeral home. The case concluded early this year.
“So 2022, I got the phone call that I had been waiting to hear, which is, 'We're going to start the paperwork to have David released back to you,'" Danielle said. "That has led to five years of nightmares, anxiety attacks, and everything in between. That all of those body parts have sat in evidence for all these years. Five years.”
Unfortunately, Danielle shares a similar story with hundreds of other victims.
Danielle had always been very outspoken about her case, but via Zoom, Denver7 connected her with another victim named Jazzy, who had never shared her story with a news organization. She asked Denver7 not to share her full name.
Jazzy still lives in Montrose, while Danielle moved to Colorado Springs in 2018 and never looked back.
"My husband died in August of 2015. He completed suicide at his office," Jazzy said over the Zoom call. “When I very first met Megan, it was at that mortuary... I was going to have him cremated. She wanted to know if I wanted to donate his body, and I said absolutely not."
Jazzy's experience with Hess was extremely different than Danielle's.
“I was given many phone calls by Megan to come down and just sit if I wanted to, and I did. And I'd go and visit her, and I would visit her mom (Shirley Koch)," Jazzy said. “She was very personable with me, calling me a lot, asked me if I'd ever ridden in a limousine, would I like to go do a pedicure... I really felt that she reached out to me personally, as a friend.”
Hess and Shirley Koch, her mother, owned and operated Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors. When Jazzy later learned Hess and Koch were harvesting bodies and selling body parts, she felt betrayed by a friend she believed had sincerely cared. Later, Jazzy would also learn Hess forged her signature on all documents.
“I feel torn, because she was there when I needed it, and then the other part of me is so upset with who she is and the person she is," Jazzy said. “My interaction with Megan is her and her mom made me feel that they cared. They cared that he had died in that way and they cared about me as an individual, and that is not the case."
Like Danielle, Jazzy is also haunted by bad dreams related to what Hess did.
"To me, because he was sold whole — I don't know why, but I felt better that he was whole versus in pieces," Jazzy said.
According to the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Colorado, on Jan. 3, 2023, Hess was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison after pleading guilty to one count of mail fraud and aiding and abetting. Koch was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison after pleading guilty to the same charges.
“It was a scream of — a silent scream of gratitude, that this was finally over," Danielle said, who was in the courtroom that day. “I think she got what she deserved. I'm not going to lie. I'm not bitter and I'm not angry. I forgave her in court... We need better laws. We need to understand this entire death care industry. We also need to understand the entire body brokering industry.”
The plea agreement states that from 2010 to 2018, Hess and others stole "bodies or body parts of hundreds of victims" for body broker services. During meetings with families using Sunset Mesa, the plea claims Hess would tell the families they would receive the cremains of their loved ones and "instead, the defendant and others would harvest body parts from, or prepare the entire bodies of, the decedents for sale in body broker services."
Koch's plea agreement said she was also involved in the meetings with families.
In many instances, Koch and Hess neither discussed nor obtained authorization for donation of decedents’ bodies or body parts for body broker services. In other instances, the topic of donation was raised by Hess or Koch, and specifically rejected by the families. In such circumstances, despite lacking any authorization, Koch and Hess recovered body parts from, or otherwise prepared entire bodies of hundreds of decedents for body broker services.
The plea continued to say in the instances where families agreed to donations, Hess and Koch would sell remains beyond what the family authorized. The mother daughter duo would also frequently deliver cremains to families, saying the remains were those of their loved ones, when in fact they were not.
“One thing that we saw with the Sunset Mesa case is Megan Hess was actually forging documents saying that these bodies didn't have any diseases, when in fact, we knew a lot of these bodies had lots of diseases, including Hepatitis C and AIDS," said State Rep. Matt Soper, who represents Mesa and Delta counties. “I feel like it should have been a lot more than 20 years... But I was very impressed that the judge did hand down 20 years for Hess because that is the maximum under federal law for mail fraud, which is what they were being prosecuted under.”
Rep. Soper was in the courtroom on the day Hess and Koch were sentenced.
“Both she and her mother were wearing bright red with this, like, bright gold jewelry on and immediately handcuffs went on, the jewelry came off and they set it on the table, and were escorting them out," Rep. Soper said. “Then, actually seeing them ushered out was, like, yes, finally justice is back again.”
Rep. Soper still remembers the first time he heard about what was happening at Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors. It was before he was elected to office.
“They would say, 'My loved one died, and I now know that their body has ended up in a country, a foreign country, or was used as an experimental piece for a foreign military, or for a collector and that it was plastinized.' And they said, 'We thought we were given the remains, and that turned out to be cat litter and concrete,'" Rep. Soper said, recalling what victims told him. “Story after story, and I remember sitting there as I'm campaigning for office, and I said to them, 'If I'm ever lucky enough to get into the statehouse, we will do something about this.'"
Plastination is a technique that preserves body parts, which Rep. Soper referenced.
“There have been smaller cases, but certainly none as far as this gravity are concerned," she said. “These are the worst body snatchers ever in American history, and they should never, ever, see the light of day again.”
Since the investigation into Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors, there have been a number of laws passed in relation to the crimes out of Montrose that stretched across the world.
The first bill passed into law was in 2018, which separated the ownership between mortuaries and tissue donor banks, to ensure a person couldn't have more than 10% ownership in each.
Then, in 2020, Rep. Soper helped pass a bill that made abuse of a corpse a felony. Before that, he said it was a low-level misdemeanor. He said this law could not be applied retroactively in Hess and Koch's trial, but believes it would have enhanced their sentences.
Last year, Rep. Soper helped passed another bill, which allows the Department of Regulatory Agencies (DORA) to go into funeral homes and inspect the shop floor. DORA is the state agency that regulates funeral homes.
"Make sure the bodies in the caskets match the records, and that was in direct relation to Sunset Mesa, because five times DORA went out to Montrose. Five times Shirley Koch and Megan Hess said 'You can't inspect our premises, come back with a warrant,'" Rep. Soper explained. "Had we been able to get state regulators in there, we probably would have been able to stop this thing much sooner than the decade that it had gone on, and then the five years that it's since been in court.”
Still, Rep. Soper said he believes more work needs to be done.
“Really the next step from here, in my mind, is a federal abuse of a corpse statute. There have actually been two introduced into Congress, but they went nowhere in the last Congress," he said. “I would like to see one of those passed with far longer sentences than just mail fraud, because it's ridiculous to pass it on mail fraud.”
Rep. Soper is not working on anything specifically tied to Sunset Mesa in this legislative session, but said he likes to use one session to work toward the next.
“We're the only state left that doesn't regulate individual morticians. We regulate the funeral home, but not the morticians," he said. “To be a funeral director in Colorado, you need to be 18, no criminal record, and then just file your business paperwork with the state to start working, and that's it. You don't have to know anything about embalming, cremation, mortuary science, diseases.”
In 2024, Rep. Soper said he would like to work toward regulating morticians. He believes fair standards for funeral directors would be a certain educational requirement, ethics in mortuary science, and continuing education.
“I also want to work on with our congressional delegation, on some sort of a federal statute to criminalize and up the penalties from what we saw in Sunset Mesa," he added. "Let's face it, Megan Hess and Shirley Koch are the little fish. It's the buyers of these bodies around the world that are the big fish, and only the federal government can go after the big fish. The people who buy bodies to plastinize them and have in their lavish homes. Those are very sick individuals, and those are individuals that we need the strong arm of the federal government to go after.”
While state legislators work to make lasting change, victims like Danielle and Jazzy are working to move forward after experiencing such trauma.
“I want to get over that, because what? It's over, it's over," Jazzy said.
Danielle said she hopes the hundreds of victims in this case can start finding a place to heal.
“What are my thoughts about preying upon people in one of the most vulnerable and sacred times of the human experience?" Danielle asked, in response to a question from Denver7. "I'm going to leave that in a higher being's hands, because yeah, I can judge it. And it's not going to be kind, and that's not who I want to be.”