Last summer, Debbie Schum walked onto the campus of Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, carrying a petite gift bag. The bag had red and pink swirly designs, a look that 54-year-old
Schum, a lifelong tomboy who wears her gray hair in a limp mohawk, felt awkward carrying. When the FBI called, suggesting she bring the bag to their outpost at the school, they were adamant about punctuality. Schum arrived 20 minutes before 2 p.m. and climbed the stairs to the second floor of a beige brick building. The bag held a container of cremated human remains. They belonged to LoraLee Johnson, known as Lora, Schum's best friend for nearly 30 years.
The ashes hadn't met their intended fate. On June 13, 2017, Johnson passed away from bladder cancer at Schum's home in Hotchkiss, a small community surrounded by orchards and farms in western Colorado. In her will, Johnson, an artist and proud Aquarius, asked Schum to mix the cremated remains with glitter and ground herbs. She wanted them scattered at Orvis Hot Springs in the town of Ridgway, where she and Schum had spent many hours soaking.
The day after her death, Johnson's body arrived at Sunset Mesa Funeral Directors in Montrose, Colo., a big-box town of 19,000. A 42-year-old woman named Megan Hess owned Sunset Mesa, and Hess' mother helped her with the business. After Johnson's body went to the funeral home, Schum says it took seven weeks for the ashes to return in the gift bag. By that time, the memorial Johnson's friends wanted had been repeatedly delayed. Schum cared about the remains, but they felt incomplete as they were. Then, a year later, the FBI called.
At the university, Schum spoke to a woman at an intake table in the hallway, who asked her to wait. Special Agent in Charge John Busch and another FBI employee eventually appeared. Schum followed them into a small room, placed the bag on the floor and sat down.
The agents began asking her questions about Sunset Mesa: Did she originally contact them? No, the hospice did. At what time did she visit the business? Around 1:30 p.m., the day after Johnson's death. What arrangements were made?
At Sunset Mesa, Hess asked for $1,000 cash for the cremation. Schum didn't have enough in her wallet, so Hess suggested that she donate Johnson's bladder—untouched by chemotherapy and radiation after Johnson rejected both treatments—to cancer research. The cremation would be free if she did so, but Johnson hadn't wanted any part of her body removed. Considering the saved money and the benevolence of donation, Schum, with some guilt, took the offer.
"What would you have said if she asked you to donate the entire body?" Schum remembers Busch asking.
Schum considers herself a fierce rationalist, the kind of person who's usually irritated by hypotheticals. "They didn't ask me that," she says firmly. She wouldn't have agreed if they had.
Busch paused. "I'm sorry to inform you that none of this happened the way you think it did."
THE AGENTS TOLD SCHUM THAT THEY SUSPECTED
Sunset Mesa had sold Johnson's entire body, potentially one of hundreds to meet a similar end. According to FBI letters and emails sent to families, the bureau began investigating Hess' businesses in October 2017. Along with Sunset Mesa, Hess ran a non-profit called Donor Services Inc., through which she sold donated bodies or their parts to various companies. This unregulated field, which itself is legal, is known as "body brokering," and it supplies cadavers to industries that seem benign—university labs, medical schools—as well as plastic surgery classes, car companies and the military. An FBI review of her donor files showed that Hess allegedly sold bodies that were meant for cremation without proper consent.
After Reuters interviewed concerned former employees of Sunset Mesa, the FBI raided the business in February 2018. Soon after, the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies opened its own investigation, which found that Hess failed to maintain necessary records for years and had disposed of bodies without required permits. She entered an agreement with the agency to surrender her business registration, and Sunset Mesa is now permanently closed. The FBI has confirmed the existence of its criminal investigation and acknowledged that it has tested cremains for "foreign substances," but little else about the case has been publicly revealed. With suspicions swirling, some of the funeral home's alleged victims have filed civil suits accusing Hess of fraud, civil conspiracy and other violations. Hess, who did not respond to multiple interview requests or a list of questions, has denied the accusations. No one has yet been charged.
The university's Forensic Investigation Research Station tested 128 samples of cremated remains, and some, including those thought to belong to Johnson, were taken to FBI headquarters in Quantico, Va. Alleged victims were told that these "central" cases, of which there are about 50, involved bodies that were sold whole. Because cadavers transfer between buyers—and are sometimes dismembered in the process—their ultimate destinations are hard to track. Relatives learned that their loved ones' remains, if indeed sold, were unlikely to ever be found.
Concerns metastasized past Montrose into many western Colorado towns and beyond, creating a vast web of people, many living in rural communities, touched by the investigation. The story reveals the thin barrier that separates most Americans from the grisly methods, and possible abuses, of the death care industry. For many family members, the lasting anger comes from the idea that, no matter how much meaning their loved one's body carried, someone else could have viewed it as a product, taken it apart, put it in a box and sold it. Life felt permanently altered for many. "Why would you even dream that this could be possible?" one woman wondered.
In the room with the agents, Schum was stunned. She could only say, "What are you talking about?" She said it many times. The bag on the floor had suddenly become an intruder. Lora might not be inside it, and no one knew what was. She handed the bag to the agents so they could test its contents. "Take your time," she says. "It's not her anyway."
"Did it come in this little gift bag?" Schum remembers Busch asking. "What did you think of that?"
"I thought it was tacky."
The agents told her they would be in touch. Schum went back to her car, thinking that, for someone who just heard that her friend's body was lost, she was doing pretty well. She stopped at Walmart to pick up trash bags and other household supplies on the way home. Once inside the store, everything hit her.
Schum started "freaking out," something she rarely does. She began crying and fled to the restroom to hide, but it was busy. She abandoned her filled shopping cart in an aisle. Somehow, she made it home. Once there, she rifled through the documents relating to Johnson's estate, looking for a receipt, anything, from Sunset Mesa. All she found were business cards.
THE FBI AGENTS COULDN'T TELL
Schum where Johnson's body had gone, but they did ask her if she had ever heard of "plastination." She took this as a hint. Plastination is a process that halts a body's decay by removing the skin and replacing the fluids with liquid polymer. The body is then positioned with clamps and foam blocks to "cure." After hardening in its position, a process that takes months, it ends up displayed in classrooms or exhibits. It is one of many possible fates for a brokered body.
Selling corpses is a shadowy industry, but it doesn't necessarily operate outside the law. Tissue and organs for transplant go through a highly regulated process, but non-transplant tissue, the kind used for scientific and medical research, can be sold when obtained consensually through the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act. Around 20,000 people donate their bodies for this purpose each year, often through university programs. There's a greater demand for cadavers than those programs can satisfy, though, so independent brokers and tissue banks, where bodies are stored and distributed, have stepped in to fill the void.
Almost no laws control what happens to non-transplant tissue once it is donated; a cadaver can theoretically be sold or leased many times. Brokers, especially those working without proper consent, take advantage of the resulting gaps. The money is often enough to justify their behaviour—a complete body usually sells for between US$3,000 and $5,000, but prices can peak much higher, according to the Reuters investigation. Brokering scandals have occurred near Los Angeles, Detroit, Phoenix, Albuquerque and even the medical schools at Tulane and UCLA.
In Colorado, there are few regulations to catch shoddy behaviour, such as illegitimate body trading, by mortuaries. It is the only state in the country that does not license funeral home and crematorium operators, and its regulatory agencies have little authority to inspect these businesses. In response to the Sunset Mesa investigation, in June 2018, Colorado lawmakers made it illegal for anyone who owns more than a 10-per-cent interest in a mortuary or crematory to have interest in a non-transplant tissue bank.
The state's Department of Regulatory Agencies had received complaints about Sunset Mesa for years, including one from a former Delta County coroner, but no disciplinary action occurred until after the 2018 FBI raid. The agency's eventual investigation alleged that Hess used unmixed concrete as a replacement for the ashes. "What we have here is an orchestrated event," Hess wrote in her response, claiming that a state investigator and another local funeral home owner cooked up the story. "You do not become the number-one funeral home in town by doing a bad job."
Hess dealt with hundreds of customers since becoming the owner of Sunset Mesa in 2011. According to more than 50 stories from interviews and legal documents, those contacted by the FBI had experiences similar to Schum's: discounted or free cremation services in exchange for a donated organ, with little attention paid to the lack of forms or receipts. Others never agreed to donate anything. Many remembered Hess as a warm, sweet woman who put them at ease. Some families kept the ashes they received at home, while others buried them next to a spouse in Florida, or scattered them under a tree in Oregon, or flew them to an ancestral village in Ireland. Months or years later, in 2018, they learned they might be the victims of a crime.
When Schum and I first spoke on the phone last October, she wanted to dispel the idea that she was in an emotionally fragile state. She described the Sunset Mesa ordeal as "usurping her grief"—more frustrating for the emotions it hijacked than the new ones it produced. She despised Hess and her family for their possible deception, and she wanted justice. But she also seemed disturbed by how quickly the investigation had made her feel like a stranger in her own world. Schum has experienced other losses in her life. But losing her friend twice, first to cancer and then to the underworld of the cadaver market, reminded her that, no matter how much she attempted to confront death, there were many unimagined trap doors.
The FBI set up an online survey for Sunset Mesa's clients to discover whether they might be relevant to the investigation. Some didn't respond at all, but Schum wanted as much information as the FBI could give her. Then she did more research. She looked for Johnson in plastination company databases, searching for a familiar, albeit skinless, face. She combed through tangentially related articles. She read about the industry in Annie Cheney's Body Brokers. "Relatives rarely have the opportunity—or the inclination—to accompany their deceased loved ones into the realm of hospital morgues and funeral homes," Cheney writes. "But once death comes, they are quick to release them into a world which, for many, is a kind of wilderness."
Schum struggled to define her feelings. The body had been stolen from her, in a way, but Johnson was already dead—the body wasn't her anymore. Why, other than their fraudulent and disrespectful nature, were the accusations so upsetting? It defied Schum's compulsion to categorize. "There's no file folder for this," she says. "When there isn't one, it swims in your head until you can create one." Like the death of a loved one, the incident felt incomprehensible, but there was no funeral-like event to usher her into its fact.
"The most succinct way to say this," she explains, "is that I really, really need to call Lora and tell her this totally bizarre and horrible thing that happened to my friend Lora."
In october 1989, 24-year-old Schum got off a plane in Grand Junction after spending the summer in Alaska with her boyfriend, a raft guide. It was 1 a.m. and cold, and the next bus to her neighbourhood wouldn't leave for hours. She knew an artist who lived in a warehouse in town and, hoping to crash on his floor, she walked there and knocked on his window. Johnson, who had been dating the artist, appeared on the other side of the glass. She opened the window about six inches, and Schum began fumbling out an introduction. Johnson stopped her. "Do you need somewhere to sleep?" she asked.
They went to Orvis Hot Springs the next morning and became fast friends. In their early years of friendship, Johnson dragged Schum into the New Age art scenes in hippie-leaning communities of Colorado. Even so, the two were vastly different. Schum matured into an Ayn Rand-loving, orderly atheist, while Johnson believed in reincarnation, loved to wear makeup and was a chronic procrastinator. But they shared an immense conversational world, spending most evenings together on long phone calls. Their friendship, buoyed by cell signals, was largely bodiless.
Johnson played a vital role in her friend's life as they grew into adulthood. Schum's mother was emotionally and verbally abusive; her daughter believes she had some kind of personality disorder. She often made Schum feel as if she was responsible for her volatile and dangerous moods. After Schum dropped out of high school and left home, she began to examine her emotions. She learned to scrutinize them and file them into place, a technique she honed in years of counselling. It made her feel more in control than she ever did as a child. She could get carried away with analyzing herself, but conversations with Johnson helped her integrate the lessons of therapy into everyday life.
Johnson was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2015. She elected to forgo medical treatment in favour of $6,000 sessions with alternative therapists and faith healers. But when her disease progressed to Stage 4, Schum knew she could no longer care for her friend over the phone. She drove the hour to Grand Junction, picked up her friend and moved her into her house in Hotchkiss.
It was the first time the friends had seen each other in more than a month. Johnson's cheeks were sunken, and she could no longer sit upright. She lay in a hospice bed in Schum's study, looking out the window at the yard and listening to a chorus of wind chimes on the nearby porch. She kept her sense of humour, once asking a hospice nurse if she could bring Brad Pitt to feed her grapes and fan her with peacock feathers. But eight days after she moved in, she died, late at night, with Schum holding her hand.
The Sunset Mesa investigation put Schum in a position where she needed her friend more than ever. When she heard about a private Facebook group for alleged victims, she joined, hoping that others could help make the situation more coherent. Today, the group hosts some 400 people.
Schum became the de facto leader. She was active, squeezing updates out of the FBI victim specialists via text and posting them as fodder for frenzied theory building. The members pored over each other's cases, digging into the grim details of how their loved ones were possibly dismembered. "The group is a double-edged sword," Schum says. "One of the benefits is that we can talk about this, and we can put our crumbs of information together. But one of the cons of the group is it's overwhelming."
But it was only a virtual community. Schum wanted more than that, feeling that they needed a physical representation and an organized response to media requests. She posted about having a gathering. In September 2018, more than 100 people assembled on a cloudless afternoon at Confluence Park in Delta, 20 miles [32 kilometres] north of Montrose. It was a central location for many while still avoiding Sunset Mesa itself. On the grass under an awning of ragged tree branches, the attendees, mostly women, passed around a microphone. They spoke about their loved ones.
In 2015, Judy Cressler's father died of lung cancer incurred after years of uranium mining; he called the disease "Charlie." He decided to donate his body to cancer research through Sunset Mesa. The FBI told Cressler that her father's body was actually sold to a plastination company in Saudi Arabia.
Rick Neuendorf's wife, Cherrie, died on Dec. 11, 2013, his birthday. When they met, Neuendorf was a police officer and Cherrie a crisis intervention counsellor. They started dating after working on a call together. His family held a service for her at Sunset Mesa, and she was supposedly cremated. He later learned that her entire body was shipped somewhere unknown. As a cop, he blames himself for not noticing anything suspicious.
Terri Reid's husband, William, refused treatment for his cancer. They had discussed cremation and, since both of them loved fishing, decided that they wanted their ashes mixed in a tackle box that had belonged to Reid's grandfather. The FBI told her that, less than 24 hours after Sunset Mesa picked him up, his entire body was shipped out of their facility.
"We all have a different story about what we found out," Reid says later. "But, bottom line, it's all the same story."
The gathering was an event designed to redeem their grief, a funeral for all the funerals that had been nullified. It signalled a coordinated anger, and it helped Schum confirm that others shared her sense of living in a dream—something she both needed and feared.
We are willing to pay, often a lot, for the services scaffolding death. The National Funeral Directors Association reports that in 2016, the median cost of a burial service was $7,360. But in the past 10 years, the number of funeral homes in the country has steadily declined. Cremation's popularity is partially responsible.
Only in the 19th century did cremation find a footing as a business venture in the United States, advertising its utility, hygiene, progressiveness and secular nature. In the early 20th century, crematoriums flourished on the West Coast. The custom of scattering ashes soon followed. The right to scatter cremains proved controversial in state legislatures, with funeral home owners calling it a "deplorable vogue." They prophesied that the nation's public land would soon be carpeted in fragments of human bone. When legislation did pass, California, Alaska and Washington led the way. (Currently, Washington is also spearheading green burial, or "human composting.")
Today, about half of all people who patronize the funeral industry choose cremation. Western states, save for Utah, still cremate far more bodies than the rest of the country, with only Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and Florida incinerating at similar rates.
Cremation is an economical choice—efficient, fast and relatively cheap. But the method holds transcendent meaning, even if traditional burial is still preferred by some of the nation's dominant religions. Religious historian Stephen Prothero, in his book Purified by Fire, writes that cremation in the U.S. could make mourning "more, rather than less, ritually dense and spiritually meaningful" than other options. If they're not scattered, ashes can be kept much closer to the family than they would be six feet underground. (One former Sunset Mesa customer, along with her sister, had what they thought were their mother's ashes tattooed into their skin.) While cremation allows a body to skip grotesque decay, it acknowledges that with death come many transformations.
The cadaver market works against change. It preserves corpses to be used aboveground multiple times, leaving the body neither alive nor in a state of vanishing. Death, both in the flesh and in a loved one's mind, is a process, but a preserved cadaver is eerily paused—long enough for the body to receive a price tag.
Marla Bishop of Crawford, Colo., is one of the people the FBI contacted, but she doesn't spend much time in the online victims' group. In 2017, her uncle, Gary Goldman, who had dementia, moved into assisted living in nearby Olathe, a farm town known for its sweet corn. One day, Goldman escaped the facility. Five months later, hunters found his bones in a field a mile away. Goldman's remains found their way to Sunset Mesa. Bishop decided to cremate them, and what she thought were his ashes arrived in an ornate box that she described as "a tomb for a gerbil." Hess also catered Goldman's memorial service.
When Bishop dropped off the box at Colorado Mesa University for testing, she realized she felt differently than the others in the building. "I was more at peace than other people, because my uncle went back to the earth," she remembered. "I'm more spiritual, thinking that wherever he is, he went already. It was weird, having no attachment to those cremains."
Bishop knew that had her uncle not had five months to decompose, giving her five months to reckon with it, she would have been as shaken as the other families. "At this point, it's a novel," Bishop tells me, "and all my heartache is gone."
In November, the university's forensics lab finished its tests. They divided the samples into groups of different-sized materials and carefully picked them apart, using pinpoint metal detectors. Then they released their findings.
Many people had theorized that the alleged cremains would simply prove to be unmixed concrete, or maybe cat litter. Instead, they were consistent with bone. After the results, Schum realized that she was even further from the possibility of closure.
The samples contained organic material, but families also received other results—dental fillings, jewelry fragments, Swiss Army knife parts and floral wire, none of which had belonged to the loved ones in question. Some suspect that Hess simply mixed materials in bulk, including ashes, and doled out scoops to her customers.
With no resolution and no timeline from the FBI, some of the alleged victims began acting on their own. So far, four civil suits have been filed. In one, the judge ordered Hess to pay nearly $500,000 to a customer named Julee Glynn, and the court found Hess liable in civil law for the body-brokering claims. One class action suit named a swath of defendants—including Hess and her family; David Haisman, owner of the Four Corners Cremation & Burial Society; the hospice company Schum used and multiple potential cadaver buyers. The suit also named Montrose County Coroner Thomas Canfield, alleging that he had deliberately directed bodies to Hess for a cut of the profits. Canfield would not comment on the ongoing case, and other defendants have denied the charges and sought dismissals.
Montrose, meanwhile, remains in limbo. The FBI investigation continues, but its details are obscured, and the alleged victims often feel isolated with the information they have.
"As a journalist, I've covered many events that are related to tragedies," Erin McIntyre told me. McIntyre, who now owns the Ouray County Plaindealer, is a former Grand Junction Daily Sentinel reporter. She began looking into Hess in 2016, uncovering the complaints amassed by the Department of Regulatory Agencies. When children die or drunk-driving accidents occur—even when a serial pet poisoner struck Grand Junction—people usually respond by holding candlelight vigils. "But I have to say, I'm not sure if it's the nature of the accusations," she says of Sunset Mesa, "but I am a little surprised that we haven't seen some sort of community acknowledgement." Other than the September gathering at the park, there has been little public reckoning. Some in and around Montrose still refuse to believe this happened. Last Thanksgiving, McIntyre's cousins, who read her articles, wondered aloud whether it was "fake news."
In March, the Sunset Mesa building was sold to Life Choices Family Resource Center, a Christian group that provides pregnancy and sexual health services. "We feel like we're bringing life where there wasn't life," executive director Gigi Bechthold tells the Montrose Daily Press.
But Hess still lives in Montrose, and residents sometimes confront her. She has maintained a defiant stance. Recently, representing herself, she filed a motion for dismissal in one of the civil suits, writing that "no matter how sensational the accusations ... there is only one thing that matters. Evidence."
People convicted in criminal cases involving body brokering have received as much as 20 years in prison. This March, a U.S. representative from Illinois introduced a bill that would give the secretary of Health and Human Services oversight over entities dealing with non-transplant tissue. "Body brokers have made an untold amount of money at the expense of grief-stricken loved ones," Democratic Illinois Rep. Bobby Rush, the bill's sponsor, says in a statement. "By introducing this legislation, we are sending a clear message that this practice is unacceptable."
On the private Facebook group, some have discussed getting together to mingle the anonymous ashes and scatter them as a group. Even though the materials Schum turned in are still with the FBI, the other samples feel like proxies for Johnson. To Schum and others, it felt somewhat healing to know that the families took care of someone's ashes, no matter who that person was. "We have decided that, one way or another, we are going to treat these cremains with the respect that they deserve," she says.
I visited schum in early april at her home. The sky threatened to thunderstorm over her acre of land, tucked into layered hills of juniper, but it never did. Recently, Schum had paid off her house and closed Johnson's estate, both important strides. But she was still going to sparsely attended victims' group meetings, and, when I arrived, had an article about one of the lawsuits open on her computer in the room where Johnson died.
Most people touched by the Sunset Mesa investigation are not like Schum. They do not spend their time digging into the details or going to meetings. They talk to attorneys rather than journalists, or they talk to no one at all. I spoke to a former funeral home owner in the region who says that, in his view, some of the alleged victims are too fixated. "So much so, that my professional opinion of their constant need to be personally noticed and recognized by media, and overall lack of focus on moving forward, had crossed over to what we in the death care industry call 'complicated grieving,'" the funeral home owner, who asked to remain anonymous, writes me. "I see their behavior now as 'obsessive' when it comes to being recognized and sympathized for themselves, when really a healthy grieving process, by now, would be at the stage of 'acceptance.'"
Schum, though, sees her attitude as her most truthful way of grieving. It reflects what's happening in her head. She still believes in confronting whatever's there, the way she used to do when talking to Johnson. "I have to deal with this in my own way," she says. "Don't tell me to shrink that when I can expand it."
Part of that process is recognizing what can't be entirely overcome. She frequently recalls her first meeting with Agent Busch and the way it damaged her "sense of wanting to be prepared for, even to prevent" incomprehensible experiences. Losing control of herself seems to haunt her as much as the memory of what she learned that day. "I don't want that kind of thing to ever happen again in my life, but it's going to," she says. "I know it's going to."
We walked around her backyard under an approaching ceiling of dark blue clouds. She identified the plants we passed—lavender, forsythia, daffodils—with an eager focus. Little could be seen from her property other than more juniper, more hills and the snowy peaks rising past them. Only one other person came into view: a man driving a red tractor into his driveway across the road. Schum points to him and tells me that he was also an alleged victim of Sunset Mesa. So is the person who used to own her house. Her world is calm, private and cultivated, but it is permanently laced with the new reality.
I wondered what role Johnson played as Schum gradually integrated the Sunset Mesa case into her life. "I don't know, and that's what bothers me the most," she says. She's been missing her friend more, which, while painful, seems like a start. The loss of Johnson—the being, not the body—is being allowed to surface. When Schum talked about it that day, it was the first time I had ever seen her cry.
Recently, Schum had a dream. In it, she was helping Johnson move into a new house. She glanced down at her friend's feet. One of them was missing. The next time she looked, Johnson's lower leg had vanished, and then both of her hands.
"Lora, where are your hands?" she asked. As in some of her previous dreams, Schum hoped that Johnson would be able to communicate with her, to tell her where she had gone, where to find her. But her friend could only look at her and say, "I don't know."
This story originally appeared in High Country News on June 10, 2019.
Dealing with death, by the numbers
20,557- Number of funeral homes in the U.S. in 2009
Number in 2019 - 19,136
16,100 - By population, number of people per funeral home nationwide
Average number in the West - 32,185
30,115 - In Colorado
National median cost for funeral with viewing, burial and ceremony in 2016 - $7,360
$2,419 - National median cost for direct cremation and container in 2016
55.1% - Projected cremation rates in 2019 nationwide
In the West - 69.7%
73.5% - In Colorado
Per cent of people in the East who prefer cremation, and who would choose to not have a ceremony - 8%
10% - In the South
In the Midwest - 18%
20% - In the West
17.2% Per cent of funeral homes nationwide that offer pet cremation