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Families impacted by body-brokering scam gather to pay respect to victims and to release remains

Family members release cremains of loved ones at the boat ramp along the Gunnison River in Delta, Colorado, September 22, 2023.
Lisa Young/KVNF
Family members release cremains of loved ones at the boat ramp along the Gunnison River in Delta, Colorado, September 22, 2023.

On a warm windy day at Confluence Park in Delta, Colorado family members gathered around picnic tables to talk about their loved ones and share their joint grief and anger as they prepared to let go of materials given to them by Sunset Mesa Funeral Home in lieu of the real cremains.

Judy Cressler from Grand Junction was one of the family members attending the event.

“We were given ashes of other people, (the) mixed cremains of other people, and that’s what we’re here for today, to show respect for them and return them back to the earth,” she said.

Cressler’s father, a uranium miner from Nucla, Colorado passed away from lung cancer. Megan Hess and Shirley Koch, owners of Sunset Mesa Funeral Home, stole his body and sold it to the Global Anatomy Project in Saudi Arabia.

Cressler, who was given a mixture of ashes from other deceased individuals, said she was satisfied with the sentencing of Hess and Koch last January. The two pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud each. Hess was sentenced to 20 years, and Koch to 15 years in federal prison.

Cressler said the memorial was about moving on to the next phase.

“And that’s what scattering the ashes is today, it’s just moving on to the next phase of the situation and each day gets a little easier,” she said.

During the memorial service, Leslie Schenck , who lost her mother, recited a poem she wrote entitled “On the September Day.”

“It's been a long, sad journey to a place that's so unreal. The shattered lives and broken hearts of which some will never heal. So here we stand together to release someone's loved one. The evil cast upon them can never be undone. But in the end, the Lord will come, and the demons they will pay. So may their spirits fly as we say goodbye on this September day.”

As the family members walked down to the Gunnison River, Crystal, whose grandmother was a victim of Sunset Mesa, carried a small plastic baggie, secured with a white wire bread tie.

In the see-through bag were human cremains and two small cylinder containers, one held what looked like human teeth.

“This person, female, male, nothing. Nobody's claimed them. If they could, I don't even know how it worked,” she said. “But it's very disheartening that this person didn't have a family to let him go.”

Most of the family members were able to release the materials given to them by Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors. However, Julee Glynn from Durango who lost her brother Michael, said she needed more time before releasing the cremains given to her.

“But if there was a part of my brother in any one of those bags, I had to say goodbye. And then I'll say goodbye to my own bag at some point. That's the reason, that's what drove me here today,” said Glynn.

As Judy Cressler read from Psalm 23, ashes and other materials were released into the Gunnison River near the boat ramp.

Various colors of cremains, ashes, and hardened cement clumps mixed and mingled in the still waters, leaving the hands of those who had carried the burden for far too long.

It will be some time before the contents dissolve and are carried downstream, finally released from the grip of Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors and its crimes.

Lisa Young