Colorado State Senator - District 6


Don in the News

Relief as gov signs ‘body broker’ bill
June 1, 2018

Katharhynn Heidelberg

A bill that largely precludes mortuary and crematory owners from also operating non-transplant tissue banks officially became law Wednesday.

The Human Remains Disposition Sale Business Act was introduced after the raid of a Montrose funeral home whose proprietor also operated a business that procured human remains for research.

Gov. John Hickenlooper’s signature on the act brought relief to Jerry Espinoza Jr., who with his family had testified in support of the bill.

“We’re supporting it so they can regulate more of what’s going on, so everyone else won’t go through the same crap we’ve been through,” Espinoza Jr. said. “We just thought we would do it to get it regulated.”

In 2014, the Espinoza family arranged cremation of their father, Jerry Sr., through Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors in Montrose.

Earlier this year, though, family members began to doubt they had received their father’s ashes.

First, there was a Reuters report about “body brokers,” which featured Sunset Mesa and its owner Megan Hess, who also operated Donor Services Inc. The business reportedly procured human remains for research purposes.

Then came the FBI’s raid on the mortuary and on the heels of that, the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies’ decision to suspend Hess’ mortuary and crematory licenses.

The state did not at the time regulate businesses like Donor Services Inc., though Hess said previously she had registered voluntarily with the Food and Drug Administration.

In its order of suspension, DORA said Sunset Mesa had in one instance returned cement mix to a family, not cremains. 

Per information in state and court documents, Sunset Mesa returned to the family of Gerald “Cactus” Hollenback ashes containing remnants of a zipper and a watch when he’d been taken to the mortuary wearing only pajamas.

In light of the reports, the Espinoza family and others who spoke to the Montrose Daily Press in February said they suspected they hadn’t received human ashes.

The Espinozas pooled their resources and had the ashes they were given tested.

“They came back as not human remains,” Espinoza Jr. said Thursday. The family is discussing its options with an attorney, he said.

Hollenback’s widow and stepdaughter have already filed suit, alleging fraud; Hess’ attorneys in response called the suit frivolous.

The FBI has not said why it obtained search warrants for Sunset Mesa, or why an investigation was launched. No charges have been filed.

Hess, who has since closed her businesses, said in January that Donor Services Inc. did not charge for donation, but only for the disposition of remains afterward. She also characterized the Reuters report as an attempt to tarnish her reputation.

Espinoza Jr. said the FBI informed his family it could not locate paperwork for his father.

“We talked to the FBI and they said as far as they can determine, there is no paperwork for our father being there. I don’t know what that’s going to turn out to be,” he said. “ … I just don’t have any idea what happened.”

What Espinoza Jr. does have is hope — hope that the new law will help avoid similar situations, since those owning 10 percent interest or more in a mortuary or crematory cannot now simultaneously own interest in a non-transplant tissue bank.

Additionally, the new law requires extensive record-keeping for non-transplant tissue banks, which must now register with the state and provide signed receipts when a body part is transported or delivered.

Among the act’s provisions, families are to be informed that the tissue bank may be compensated for distributing the remains.

Under the law, non-transplant tissue banks are people or entities who, for any purpose other than transplant, procure body parts, or transport, screen, store or distribute body parts, or arrange for such storage and distribution. The new law does not apply to eye banks or organ procurement or transplant tissue banks, which are already defined in statute.

Sen. Don Coram and Rep. Marc Catlin, both Montrose Republicans, sponsored the act. In April, Coram said the bill was intended to “put guardrails” on the non-transplant tissue trade and Catlin said it would make the process more transparent.

“It isn’t right when (businesses) are taking advantage of you when you are at a low point of losing your loved one,” Espinoza Jr. said. “That’s why we went and supported getting (act) passed. I think it’s a good thing.”

Katharhynn Heidelberg is an award-winning journalist and the senior writer for the Montrose Daily Press. Follow her on Twitter @kathMDP.


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