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Selling body parts: The secret black market industry in Colorado

Posted at 5:56 AM, Nov 01, 2019
and last updated 2019-11-01 07:56:55-04

DENVER -- To many, it is simply unthinkable. The reality of body brokers profiting from the sale of body parts has made national and international headlines following government raids in Arizona and Colorado in recent years.

"I've had nightmares about it," said Fredericka "Freddie" Hancock. "It's not something that can be fixed."

Hancock was notified by the FBI that her husband's body parts had been sold without her consent.

"He had been dismembered. His head and his arms from his elbows to his fingers, his legs from his knees to his toes, had been removed from his body and they had been sold," she said.

Hancock's story started after her husband, Thomas, passed away. She signed a contract with a Montrose funeral home to have his body cremated. But she never consented to her husband's dismembering.

Montrose Funeral Home shut down

Hancock is one of more than five dozen family members currently suing the family that operated the now shut-down Sunset Mesa Funeral Home in Montrose. In February of 2018, Colorado regulators shut down the funeral home at the same time the FBI was investigating claims families did not receive the real cremains of their loved ones.

"It is unbelievable," said Dave Teselle, a Denver-based attorney who represents Hancock and the dozens of other families in a claim against the funeral home and the companies accused of buying the body parts. "These illegitimate businesses are buying and selling body parts just like anything off the shelf at Walmart."

"It's really an underground industry that most people don't know about," attorney Michael Burg said.

Burg and Teselle's law firm is currently suing body brokers in both Colorado and Arizona. Both have become experts on the secret industry of selling body parts on a worldwide market.

"In reality, they are just trying to get those bodies free, and then they are going to chop them up themselves in parts and make money off the bodies," Burg said.

Price list exposes values of body parts

The price list below, which was uncovered by the FBI five years ago during a lawsuit levied against an Arizona body broker, gives insight into the value of body parts and how much the brokers can make.

body parts list.png
A price list uncovered during an ongoing lawsuit against an Arizona body broker provides insight into the values of body parts and the profits that can be produced. The price list is from an Arizona company shut down after an FBI raid five years ago.

Prior to the raid, the cost of purchasing an arm and shoulder was $600. A human head and spine sold for $850, while a full pelvis all the way to the toes priced out at $2,850. The highest prices were for an upper torso that included a head and arms ($4,000) and the cost of an entire body was $5,000, according to the price list.

It is a business

"It is a business, and it is a profit business," Burg said. "It's for-profit, and people don't realize there is a huge demand for cadavers and body parts."

That demand comes from all over the world, including medical schools, law enforcement agencies, the military and a variety of other industries looking to purchase bodies and body parts for credible research legitimately. But experts say the underground black market also contributes to the increased demand for body parts.

"There are people and businesses who spend millions and millions of dollars, trafficking in these body parts as if they were nothing more than cans of soup or loaves of bread," Teselle said.

Montrose story

"I was pretty shocked," said Jacque Hampson, a former employee of the Sunset Mesa Funeral Home in Montrose. "I saw a lot inside as far as body parts and things like that. But I was oblivious to what was going on. I just figured it was a legitimate business."

Hampson also said she heard bodies being dismembered by a saw in the back room.

"It was kind of creepy," she said.

Limited federal and local regulation

Burg and Teselle claim that the lack of regulation has given rise to the black market.

"It is totally unregulated," Burg said.

"What's shocking to me is that there's not an outcry for there to be more legislation, there's not an outcry for the government to regulate and license these people," Teselle said.

Colorado lawmakers respond

Responding to the investigations and details reported out of Montrose, Colorado lawmakers could become the first in the country to pass a law making it illegal for funeral home or crematory owners to operate as a body broker.

"I thought it was something that needs to be corrected," said state Senator Larry Crowder (R-District 35), one of the bill's sponsors. "This is a way we can eliminate or alleviate the black market on body parts."

Family members left to wonder

Hancock is one of many family members who has learned the cremains she was given by the owners of Sunset Mesa Funeral Home in Montrose contained items and materials that were not her husband. She doesn't even know if the container she was given even contains any of her husband's cremains.

"It can't be fixed," Hancock said. "They can't put his head back on his body. They can't put his arms and legs back on his body. That's part of my nightmare. I see his body parts floating in space, and I keep trying to grab them and put him back, and I can't."

This story was originally published by Tony Kovaleski on KMGH in Denver.