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This show contains graphic content that may be difficult for some listeners. Please listen with care. Mary Lee Friedenthal worked for Sunset Mesa Funeral Home in 2014 and 2015.


You met her in episode three. She's a hairdresser. Her husband hunts and fishes, does taxidermy, too. Their house is decorated with animal skulls and bones. They've got freezers full of meat.


We do everything from go and get that animal, to process the animal, to mount the animal. It's a whole everything is all involved.


And when she was working at Sunset Mesa, Mary Lee was a kind of jack of all trades receptionist for the owner, Megan Hess.


Answer phones, do some billing, go pick up death certificates, help get books a little bit organized, clean the toilets, or help set up her funeral. And I told know I can do a little bit of everything, so whatever you need, I'm here.


But Mary Lee never got along with Meghan's mother, Shirley Koch. Shirley's job at Sunset Mesa was to handle the bodies. She had a penchant for saying really morbid and bizarre things, and she was especially cold to Mary Lee, even cursed her out. Mary Lee is an extra nice, say hi to everyone type of person, so she took it personally.


I didn't know what it was. I thought it was just a bunch of emotional things that I was going through.


So Mary Lee quit, but she had this bad feeling about the whole place.


I had a sense that something funny was going on the day that I left. It's kind of like when your gut is just telling you that you are in the wrong place and you need to get out and you do.


Mary Lee went back to hairstyling, and she stayed in touch with other people who worked with Megan.


Then one afternoon in 2017, Mary Lee was enjoying a break between hair appointments when the phone rang.


I have a salon in my home and my husband would come home for lunch, and it was just after we ate lunch and I got a phone call and he said, hi, this is so and so with the FBI. And I just wanted to know if it was okay if we came and talked to you? We have an ongoing investigation with Sunset Mesa. Well, my husband was like, you need to be very careful and make sure you're clear about what you say. And I was like, okay, and you are. You're freaked out. You're like, what is going on?


Mary Lee agreed to talk to the agent. He was actually already waiting at the end of her street, which was unsettling. He came to the door dressed casually in a button down and slacks. He had a bunch of strange questions for Mary Lee about her old boss, Megan Hess.


How good was she at keeping her records? How good was she at returning phone calls? He asked me if I logged on to any of the computers and filled out the death certificates myself. Do I know where they keep their paperwork? Do I know what types of businesses she runs out of there?


The agent asked pointedly. Did she know of anything illegal going on?


The only thing, honestly, that I could think of is that when she cooked meals for a bunch of people, she cooked in an unlicensed kitchen. I said, I don't really know of anything that's illegal that's going on there other than that.


And that was pretty much the end of it. The agent asked Mary Lee not to share their conversation with Meghan. Don't even contact her.


I don't know what they're investigating or why they're investigating. I just know that something big is about to happen.


From campsite Media and Sony Music Entertainment, this is cover up body brokers. Episode five the Donor surgeon speaks. I'm Ashley Font.


Hello, I'm Elizabeth Day, the creator and host of how to fail. It's the podcast that celebrates the things in life that haven't gone right, and what, if anything, we've learned from those mistakes to help us succeed better. Each week, my guests share three failures, sparking, intimate, thought provoking, and funny conversations. You'll hear from a diverse range of voices sharing what they've learned through their failures. Join me Wednesdays for a new episode each week. This is an Elizabeth day in Sony Music Entertainment. Original podcast listen now wherever you get your podcasts.


By 2018, Meghan Hess had cemented her reputation around Mott Rose as a hero, the woman who led a cleanup of the town cemetery, the funeral director who offered cremation coupons to people who couldn't afford a pricey funeral. Mary Lee may have fought with Meghan's mom, but she liked Meghan.


She had a very motherly sense personality where you just felt like you could go and confide, and she had a way of know you with your emotions and your sorrows and your griefs. And she had an ability to reach them at their level, emotionally.


After that visit with the FBI agent, though, Mary Lee could barely contain herself. She hopped on the phone with her girlfriends. The other women who'd previously worked with.


Meghan, one of them was her housekeeper and one of them was the florist. And then there was me. And they had already been contacted as well. And they were like, wow, we were wondering if he was going to actually talk to you or not. So, yeah, then it was like, do you know what's going on?


The women knew something was up, but they still didn't know what. Then, in January 2018, they got some answers in the form of a sensational national news story. The headline, the body trade. Cashing in on the donated dead. The news agency Reuters published a massive investigative series about the shady world of buying and selling bodies. It was the first time the public got a glimpse behind the wizard's curtain at sunset Mesa. The story clearly identified Megan as a body broker. The news agency had gotten a hold of her emails and saw that she was using a hotmail account to take orders for body parts. But the story fairly pointed out that selling dead bodies for profit is legal.


And that story dropped some other major allegations. First, Meghan had been ripping off the logo of Donate Life, a national brand that promotes organ donation, even though she had no affiliation with it.


Second, remember that phd in funeral science that Meghan hung so prominently at Sunset Mesa? The one that another employee, Charla Downing, had thought seemed so impressive, it made.


People think, oh, she went to college and got a degree. She must be good.


But a Reuters reporter had confirmed that.


The degree was bogus.


Meghan had totally made it up.


When Charla read that Reuters article, she was pissed.


After all of this broke, I found out that there is no such school. There is no such degree. It seemed like, in retrospect, if she needed a new skill, she just made it up and she had one.


Then there was a third deeply disturbing detail in the story that seemed to catch fire so fast and furiously in Mont Rose. An ex employee told Reuters that Meghan and Shirley were yanking gold out of dead people's mouths and selling it. And they'd paid for a family vacation to Disneyland with the profits. Mont Rose is a pretty conservative place where many people are skeptical of journalists. But that detail about taking people's gold teeth in order to fund a lavish vacation, that was way too damn much for Mont Rose.


So that's what people were talking about. She was selling people gold teeth and that kind of thing.


There's a certain alchemy to small town gossip. Things that begin as facts, get embroidered and embellished and take on a new form. That's what happened with the gold teeth allegation. Soon it became that Meghan and Shirley had stolen jewelry from the dead.


Know my mom had this ring or that ring or I wonder if she still has her wedding. Know what all did she take? And there was also a lady who saw Shirley wearing a brooch that was her mother's that they wanted to have her buried in.


Mont Rose was on fire with talk. The story was posted on the town's Facebook page and immediately caused fractures and divisions. The vitriol between those who supported Megan and those out for her blood made the admin shut off. Comments how could that be Meghan?


She's a light to the community.


She does all these great things for the community.


I just don't think there's any way.


That she would be like that.


You've got to be kidding me. This can't be happening. I know this lady. I've worked with her. I know her family. I know her little girl. It just can't be.


I think there was a very complex mix of emotions. There were people who were also going, oh, well, that explains a lot more. No wonder she can go and spend thousands of dollars at the store and not bat an eye at it. There were some people that had felt taken advantage of and knew that they had been treated wrongly. There were some people who were very hopeful that justice was going to be served.


The process of justice would be a.


Slow burn, but the fire had been lit.


After the Reuters report hit in January 2018, the town of Mont Rose was reeling, but it was about to be positively scandalized.


I started looking into the operations out in Colorado and ultimately sent information out to the Denver field office suggesting that they open an investigation.


You may remember Paul Johnson, the biologist turned FBI agent based in Detroit. Johnson has spent most of his nearly 20 year career investigating the world of body brokering. He's in charge of a nationwide operation dubbed death Harvester.


Johnson has a shaved head and a goatee. He doesn't give off. I'm a fed vibes.


He's remarkably pleasant and upbeat, which is pretty extraordinary because working the death harvester cases, it's taken a toll on him.


There are many horrific things that the FBI has to investigate, but you can't unsee the things that you see in this kind of investigation. The know Arthur Rathburn treated human remains for example, cutting them up with a chainsaw and having buckets of human heads floating. And just the disrespect.


Arthur Rathburn was the first body broker Johnson investigated, and he did some pretty twisted things. But Johnson was about to dive into Megan and Shirley's world. And when it was over, he'd come to think of the mother and daughter as the most callous body brokers he'd ever met. Agent Johnson had been looking into sunset Mesa funeral home for months.


He was working in tandem with the FBI office in Colorado with an agent named John Bush. Bush's career had been focused on violent cases, organized crime, drugs.


The agents had a lot of work ahead of them. Ultimately, they knew they had to search Sunset Mesa funeral home to see what was really going on.


Before a search warrant could be created, a number of other individuals had to be interviewed. Employees, lots of people who had contracted for cremation services with Megan Hess.


You know, I'd been wondering something about Sunset Mesa this whole time. How could people who work there be completely clueless about what Meghan and Shirley were doing? Was nobody helping them? Then I looked through interviews the FBI did, and there it was. Someone did know something. She was a former assistant of Shirley's. So not Mary Lee, but somebody else. I'm not going to name her because she was never charged federally, but here's what I know. This assistant helped Meghan and Shirley deceive families. One time, she knew a person's body was back in the freezer. And when Megan and Shirley told her to return the wrong ashes to that person's family, she did as she was told. The assistant also helped Megan and Shirley lie to permit workers, people who process death certificates for the county. I couldn't find any proof this assistant understood the breadth of the scheme, but it appears that she had played a part. I tried reaching her. She never returned my calls. The FBI had been looking into sunset Mesa for months, and by February 6, 2018, they were ready to make a move.


Mary Lee was at home that day.


I am cutting a close friend of mine's hair, and I get a phone call, and it's one of my coworkers that worked with me there at Sunset Mesa. And she was like, have you watched the news about what's going on with Megan? And I said, no. And she said, you need to check it out. I mean, it was huge news for our small little town, and nobody could absolutely believe know she was getting raided.


The FBI raids a Colorado funeral home.


This comes after complaints that it doubles as a donor services facility. If a funeral home does donate.


Earlier that morning, FBI vehicles had driven down merchant drive to the end of the cul de sac and pulled into the parking lot of Sunset Mesa Funeral Home.


We arrived in the morning, but at a reasonable hour. We wanted the business to be open.


Agents piled out wearing baseball caps and black windbreakers. Montrose police directed traffic agents Paul Johnson and John Bush were there. FBI photographers, sketch artists, officers from Homeland Security.


They may have seen Megan's pontoon boat, a flashy luxury she kept parked at the back of the drive. Search warrant in hand, they knocked on Sunset Mesa's front door.


Megan Hess was not there at the time. One of her staff was there.


Agent Johnson made his way through the building, which at first seemed typical to him.


I've been in more funeral homes and crematories than perhaps I would like this one. As a funeral home was fairly standard. It had a small chapel in the front, offices on the side, and an embalming room in the very back. And that room was fairly small. It had a walk in cooler to keep bodies cold. It had tables where embalming would take place. And one must assume that on those tables was also where dismembering of these bodies took place.


In other body broker cases, Johnson had found freezers full of body parts. But when he opened the freezers at Sunset Mesa, they were empty. Johnson guessed the reason for that could be that a shipment had just gone out.


Agent Johnson continued his search, but then he went outside to a small garage where the crematory was, and that's when he noticed something.


The crematory did not look quite up to the standards I've seen in other places. There were buckets of quick Crete, buckets of ash, and one of those buckets, I distinctly remember, had a scoop in it.


Seeing that bucket in scoop was really alarming for Johnson because he'd seen this before. In that first big body broker case he'd worked on. Johnson said Arthur Rathburn had combined the ashes of many different victims into one container and used a scoop to fill urns for families.


If he wanted to keep their loved one's body longer, he had further purposes for it, and they wanted cremated remains back. He would just take waste and scoop it out and fill it. So seeing a scoop, there was, again a red flag.


On that day, Agent Johnson was on the hunt for less eye catching red flags as well.


Primarily in these kind of cases, the crime is traced through documents, through records. So we're looking for consent forms. Did people consent to have their body cut up and sold. So we're looking for consent forms, we're looking for death certificates, we're looking for records as to shipping. Where did the bodies go?


And also where was Megan? As agents were rummaging around her business, she hadn't even gotten to work yet. And when she finally did show up.


She was anything but friendly and welcoming. She was irritated. She was offended. She had consulted with an attorney, and the attorney had know assist the FBI with locating documents, records, things that they're looking for legally in that search warrant. And she did do that, but that was the extent of it. She was not interested in speaking to.


Us, but someone else was ready to talk. Meghan's mother, Shirley Koch. For the past eight years, 62 year old Shirley had worked as a kind of second in command to her daughter at the funeral home. Shirley could be unpredictable. She lacked a filter. And the two of them, they fought. Their relationship was volatile. What were they calling each other?


Everything. Everything but a white woman. It was, you're a bitch. You're a bigger bitch. Eat shit. Slam doors.


Who knows if Meghan and Shirley had planned what to do if the police ever knocked on their door? But Shirley was ultimately the mom. Would she protect her daughter, maybe even take the fall for both of them? Agents Johnson and Bush left the funeral home and headed to a small, unassuming house. They would spend 5 hours over three days listening to her side of the story.


We conducted the interview in Shirley's house, and she wanted us to do that in her family room. She had sat in a large, comfortable chair and she covered herself with a blanket. And I distinctly remember during that interview that she would stroke the blanket like it was a cat. It was just an odd behavior throughout. But she talked to us for hours and was very open to discuss what she was doing. And she seemed proud of what she was doing.


How so?


I think she was proud of herself for being one self taught, for learning how to embalm, from watching things online, from learning how to dismember a body. And she felt that she had really perfected that. I think she was proud of herself as a technician in this industry. I think I do remember her mentioning using a baseball stitch for sewing up limbs. She referred to herself as the donor surgeon. She said that with pride.


What happened next seems to suggest that the donor surgeon was scared and ready to save herself at nearly every single turn. She threw her daughter under the bus. She insisted, quote, she's the brains behind it.


Megan was clearly the boss in this organization. This was her company. It was her organization. It was her funeral home. It was her body donation company. Everyone that worked for her, including her mother, would say that, that Meghan decided this, Megan did these things. This was Meghan's decision.


As the agents pressed her, Shirley started sobbing. I mean, I just did what I was told. But at the same time, just by giving knowledge of what was going on, Shirley incriminated herself. As the FBI agents wrapped up the search of Sunset Mesa, they carried bags of evidence that would help them piece together the case. They had Meghan's emails, donor services, invoices, shipping documents, and there was another key piece of evidence, files with the names of Meghan's clients.


Now the FBI had to get in touch with them and ask some very hard questions.


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I love the inside of. That's your home.


Yeah. You see my little Yorkie sleeping up there on the sofa?


Oh, yeah.


He's single handedly ruined my house. Don't ever get a little dog. They're just terrible.


Julie Glynn sits on the couch. Behind her are white Christmas lights that she hangs year round.


She's been a successful real estate agent in Durango, Colorado, for decades. We spoke over Zoom last year.


In February of 2018, Julie was at home watching tv when she got a text. It was from a friend of her older brother Michael.


And she said, how are you? I think about Michael often. Have you heard the horrible news about Sunset Mesa funeral home?


Michael had died nearly a year before. He'd been cremated at Sunset Mesa, and now apparently the place was in some kind of trouble.


I read a little bit more about it, and I didn't think much of it.


Julie didn't think the news had anything to do with her. She had Michael's ashes. They were in her house in an urn decorated with a mountain scene.


Michael had loved fishing in Colorado's lakes and rivers. He'd wanted to be scattered near their mother's ashes in one of his favorite spots. But she hadn't been able to let go just yet.


Julie had spent a big part of her life looking after Michael, who suffered from a neurological disorder.


They were so close, and he was her last living family member. Michael was only 57 when he died. Julie was lost in thought when another text from the same friend came through. The FBI was investigating Sunset Mesa. Rumors were going around about people getting kitty litter and concrete instead of ashes.


And I'm like, well, this is just. This is nuts. And Sean and I almost chuckled about it. It was, you know, this is stuff you hear people make movies of, right?


Sean is Julie's husband.


Sean said, why don't you go down and get your brother, bring him back upstairs, and we'll look at it? And I was like, what? No way. He said, no, really, julie, let's see what it is. So I went downstairs and got Michael and brought it back up, and Sean opened the lid, and he pulled the bag out. And I'll never forget his face. He just looked at me, and he nope, nope, nope. Not gonna do it. I said, what are you doing? And he goes, I'm not tampering with any evidence.


Suddenly, Julie found herself in a situation where her own brother's ashes were potentially evidence. Meanwhile, the FBI was reaching out to other Sunset Mesa clients.


Hundreds of families from around Mont Rose and even around the country were getting calls like this one.


I'm a victim specialist with the FBI, and I'm calling to discuss the sunset Mesa investigation. I'm calling because you've been identified as someone that may have had a loved.


One that was cremated at Sunset Mesa in Durango. Julie actually reached out to the feds herself.


After that friend texted her. She scoured the Internet for more information and found an FBI site about the Sunset Mesa case. There was a questionnaire for Meghan's former clients to fill out.


So she did and was told, if you had ashes from Sunset Mesa, the FBI wants you to bring them to a university an hour north of Mont rose to have them forensically analyzed. Julie had a big decision to make.


The next day, I called a family meeting. I said, I have an opportunity to take these cremaines and get them tested to see if there's any foreign material in, you know, everybody. But my son said, you gotta do what you gotta do. You gotta do what's right for Michael. My son Kevin said, mom, don't do. Just. Just don't do it. Just accept that what's in that urn is Michael. And I made the decision a couple days later that I needed to have these tested for my brother, for his sake. Why? I can't tell you why. I just knew that I had to know. I probably should have listened to Kevin.


So a few days later, Julie and her husband Sean found themselves 4 hours from home in a room at Colorado Mesa University. Two grief counselors were there. One of them spoke, and she said.


We'Re here to help with any questions or if you feel like you need counseling. Julie.


It felt like these people, these grief counselors, knew more than Julie did.


And I just was kind of dumbfounded at that point. I thought, why? Because I don't know exactly what's happening. I know I'm getting them tested, but I didn't know the extent of it, honestly. So Sean was sitting there, and he goes, can you tell us if Julie's brother really was a victim? And she immediately got up and please, please wait here. She left the room. I can tell you that I was not prepared for the next thing that happened. I can promise you that.


That's next time on body brokers.


I had friends that I had convinced to go to Sunset Meso funeral directors with their loved ones. How do you face them?


I mean, this is the kind of shit that happens on tv, that people make movies of.


Everyone in this industry profits. They all make money. Everyone but the donors.


Body Brokers is a production of campsite media and Sony Music Entertainment. The show was reported and hosted by me, Ashley Font. Elizabeth van Brocklin is the senior producer. The associate producers are Rachel Young and Callie Hitchcock. Field producers were Megan Bernie and Monique Labore. The editors were Emily Martinez, Matt Scherr, and Anthony Puccillo. Sound design, mix, and original music by Garrett Heedeman.


Fact checking by Sarah Ivory.


Recording by Jimmy Guthrie at Arcade 160 Studios in Atlanta, a special thanks to our operations team, Doug Slaywin, Ashley Warren, Sabina Mara, and Destiny Dingle. Campsite Media's executive producers are Josh Dees, Vanessa Gregoriatus, Adam Hoff, and Matt Scherr. If you enjoy cover up body brokers, please rate and review the show wherever you get your podcasts.