The Federal Bureau of Investigation is interviewing former employees of a funeral home whose owner runs a side business on the same premises selling human body parts.
An agent with the FBI has interviewed at least four former employees who worked for funeral director and body broker Megan Hess, seeking information about how she operates her businesses, the former workers told Reuters.
The federal inquiry began several months ago, shortly after Reuters interviewed a half-dozen workers who formerly worked for Hess.
One ex-employee, Kari Escher, said she was especially troubled by the practices of Ms Hess's mother, Shirley Koch, who works at the facility.
Ms Escher said Ms Koch, who embalmed and dismembered bodies, pulled teeth from some of the corpses to extract the gold in crowns or fillings.
"She showed me her collection of gold teeth one day," Ms Escher said, who helped manage a former cremation-marketing business owned by Ms Hess.
“Koch said she had sold a different batch a year prior, and they took the whole family to Disneyland in California on the gold that they cashed in," Escher said.
Reached by phone at Sunset Mesa, Ms Koch said she did not wish to talk with a Reuters reporter.
"I'm not interested. Thank you," she said before ending the call.
The news agency had also sent written questions to Ms Hess and her attorney about Ms Koch's alleged handling of gold teeth. Neither addressed the issue about the teeth.
No federal law prohibits the buying and selling of human body parts to be used in research and education.
In Colorado and most other states, it also is legal for funeral homes to sell items recovered from dead bodies, such as gold dental work and it is not against the law to operate a so-called body broker firm from the same facility that houses a funeral home and crematory.
But the business arrangement is highly unusual.
Reuters could find no other operation active in the United States that houses a funeral home, crematory and body broker in the same facility and under the same ownership.
Such multipurpose operations raise ethical concerns, several funeral industry veterans said.
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A funeral director who also works as a body broker could have a financial incentive to sell a body for its valuable parts rather than provide an inexpensive burial, for instance.
Steve Palmer, a funeral director in Cottonwood, Arizona, and former member of the policy board at the National Funeral Directors Association, said the conflict of interest “just leads to problems”.
"There are no ethics there when you do that,” Mr Palmer said.
“You are not looking at the full disposition (of a body). You are looking at how to make money."
Ms Hess runs Sunset Mesa, a funeral home, and Donor Services, a body broker operation from the same building in Montrose. Some former staff members of Sunset Mesa said they never heard Ms Hess disclose to donors that the bodies would be sold for profit.
Robert Fells, general counsel of the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association, called the operation a “deception”.
"The fact that now the business is also making money from the sale of body parts – if that is not being told to the family, it is unethical and probably illegal,” Mr Fells said.
He called running such a multifaceted operation "a new frontier."
Through the attorney, Ms Hess declined to comment for this story and didn't address questions about the FBI probe, her business practices, and the allegations by former employees. The attorney, Carol Viner, asked Reuters to "refrain from contacting" Ms Hess employees "for any reason."
The focus and extent of the federal probe into the operation is unclear, and the FBI also declined to comment.
Separate from the FBI inquiry, Reuters has learned that Colorado state funeral regulators are investigating Ms Hess's funeral home, Sunset Mesa. The state's Department of Regulatory Agencies said it has nine open complaints about Sunset Mesa – "higher than average" for funeral homes in the state, said spokesman Lee Rasizer.
He would not discuss the nature of those complaints or any action it may be taking.
Reuters began examining the Hess companies more than a year ago as part of the news agency's exploration of the human body trade, a virtually unregulated industry that largely operates in the shadows.