If you’re up on local current events, you probably caught reports that two funeral home operators in Penrose abandoned nearly 200 bodies meant for cremation or burial and used money they collected from families to buy cryptocurrency, vehicles, and a $1,500 Las Vegas dinner. An El Paso County judge determined that defendants Jon and Carie Hallford, co-owners of Return to Nature Funeral Home, will stand trial on criminal charges involving abuse of a corpse, theft, money laundering, and forgery.

A single case of alleged funeral home malpractice in Colorado is one too many. But what makes the Penrose news even more remarkable is that it follows a similar scandal that shook the Western Slope town of Montrose in 2018. That year, reports emerged that Sunset Mesa Funeral Home, run by Megan Hess and her mother, Shirley Koch, had been operating an illegal side business selling human body parts. The FBI raided the funeral home, where agents found bags of cement they suspected were being mixed into cremated remains and seized computers with troves of incriminating emails. After Hess and her mother eventually accepted a plea deal in which they admitted to stealing bodies or body parts from hundreds of victims, a judge sentenced them each to more than a decade in prison in January 2023.

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Last month, a new podcast dropped that untangles the entire, twisted story. From Campside Media and Sony Music Entertainment, Cover Up: Body Brokers is a comprehensive eight-episode account of the Sunset Mesa saga. And while it was perhaps inevitable that someone would try to give the story a narrative true-crime gloss-up, it’s a good thing that investigative reporter Ashley Fantz got on the case. She and her team of producers gained access to sources with firsthand knowledge of what happened in Montrose, providing a fascinating dive into the shadowy trade of body brokering (or the sale of human cadaver parts or whole bodies for profit) and the lack of regulations around funeral homes.

Most of the show is now available to listen to for free (early access and ad-free subscriptions are also available). In anticipation of the release of the final episodes later this month, we caught up with Fantz to learn more.

Editor’s note: The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

5280: How did you hear about this story and what got you interested in making a podcast about it?
Ashley Fantz: Campside Media, which is a juggernaut in the journalism podcast space, came to me and asked if I was interested in reporting and hosting this story. They had seen an article about Megan and Shirley. So I began to do a deep dive into body brokering, including digesting a Reuters investigation whose reporters deserve a lot of credit for the incredible reporting they did about the wider world of body brokering and for originally finding Megan. And after that, I knew I wanted to confront issues around death and our hinky feelings about it.

What are some of the issues you wanted to confront?
On a personal note, I was still recovering from open heart surgery when Campside asked me to do this. I had been working through a lot, including thinking about my own [mortality], and I knew that I wanted to dive into that more. The central question to me was: What is a body worth? Like, what is a body worth spiritually? What is a body worth emotionally? And what is a body worth in this world monetarily?

That last question about money brings up some of the more uncomfortable aspects behind the Sunset Mesa Funeral Home in Montrose. What did you find out was happening there?
Megan and Shirley were dismembering bodies, then selling them to companies. The court records are also clear that, in at least one case, they would [preserve] the bodies and sell them to universities, including Vanderbilt…which wouldn’t talk to me.

Right, and the families didn’t know their loved ones’ remains were being sold for profit in this way. Did you get a sense of what a body runs for in dollar figures?
According to the court records—and this is grotesque, but facts are facts—a head could go for $500. Megan was also selling spines, legs, and feet. A body is worth more taken apart, like a car that’s sold for parts, than it is sold whole. So you can stand to make several thousand dollars just selling a couple of body parts. And then think of the volume they did, being a popular funeral home in town.

What were some of the most surprising discoveries you made while researching this story?
I’ve been a reporter for a couple of decades now, and most of my stories have been about the intersection of trauma and crime. I have interviewed a lot of traumatized people, and I’ve tried to use trauma-informed protocol. But the people that Megan and Shirley victimized were traumatized in a way that I’ve never ever seen. The grief for their loved ones, and the trauma done to them via the violence done to their deceased loved ones, were separate.

As one person put it to me: “My grief for my lost husband is pure. It’s untainted. But now it’s been mixed in this acidic, gross brew of the trauma that was done to his body.” And when I started reporting this story, I did not understand the depth of that trauma.

Your podcast also gets into some gray legal areas like the distinction between organ and body donations. Tell me more about that.
Organ donation, or taking organs after someone has died and harvesting them in a way that preserves their viability for transplanting, is heavily regulated, policed, and safe. I don’t want anyone to listen to the podcast and feel as though they shouldn’t be an organ donor.

Body brokering is done after someone has been dead for some time. The organs are not viable in any way, shape, or form, so the bodies are, in some cases, sold to medical companies that will use them for research. There is a big difference. That’s why it was so critical that we got FBI agent Paul Johnson to speak to us to explain how this works. He feels like there’s a benefit to the public understanding what to look for if you’re dealing with a funeral home that’s asking you to donate your body or is giving you a donation form that looks strange. That’s news you can use.

Speaking of news, details continue to emerge about a different funeral home in Penrose disrespecting bodies. Does Colorado have a funeral home problem?
No, it’s not just Colorado. There’s a case 10 to 15 years back in New York, and a case in Georgia where bodies were baking in the sun. I don’t want to give the impression that every funeral home is doing this—certainly not. But I do think funeral homes should be inspected more regularly and more uniformly state to state.

One of the problems is that Megan and Shirley were selling these body parts to different companies, and there was no requirement for the companies to, let’s say, put a barcode on someone’s leg or a barcode on someone’s head. There’s no system for tracking where a body part originates to prevent fraud. Another problem is that we put dollar signs on body parts; one doctor I interviewed, Thomas Champney, has been advocating for instead paying just enough to transport a body part, perhaps, but not the body part itself.

You couldn’t get Megan or Shirley to participate in your reporting. Have you heard from either of them since you released the podcast?
I have not heard from either of them. Shirley’s attorney warned me to stop trying to contact her. Megan has never given an interview. I would be very open to talking to both of them. But I would also have to feel confident that I’m going to get somewhere in an interview. You always have to weigh if publishing what they’ve got to say is doing more damage than good. But, look, I’d love to know if there’s been some sort of evolution.

Listen to the trailer here:

Listen to Cover Up: Body Brokers on all major podcast platforms, including Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

Chris Walker
Chris Walker
Chris writes for various sections of 5280 as well as 5280.com.