Michigan cadaver dealer indicted over body parts

A screen grab from footage provided by WXYZ Channel 7 of Grosse Pointe Park businessman Arthur Rathburn who was indicted on charges he ran an illegal cadaver business that involved dismembering human bodies without consent, lying to families about how the parts would be used, and secretly selling them for profit to medical researchers.

DETROIT — It was 2006 when Arthur Rathburn’s name and morbid profession first surfaced in a book called Body Brokers, which delved into the underground world of cadaver dealers and labeled him a shady mortician who sold and rented heads, necks and legs for a handsome profit.

Ten years later, his world would close in on him.

On Friday, after years of being watched by the FBI, Rathburn of Grosse Pointe Park was indicted on numerous charges in U.S. District Court in Detroit, accused of running a nationwide scheme that involved cutting up bodies without consent and renting heads, arms and legs riddled with disease to unsuspecting medical researchers.

A dazed and homeless Rathburn sat in court on Friday, reading the 19-page indictment that accused him of heinous acts, like cutting up bodies with chainsaws, shipping blood-filled coolers of fresh heads on commercial airliners — falsely claiming the blood was Listerine — and storing more than 1,000 body parts on ice at his rundown warehouse in Detroit.

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Rathburn, who has been living out of his van and his warehouse pending a divorce, was ordered jailed over the weekend, though he could be released on bond next week and placed in a halfway house. His estranged wife, Elizabeth Rathburn, also was charged in the indictment and appeared in court with her sister. She was released on bond and said nothing as she left the federal courthouse, hiding her face behind a stack of white papers.

According to the indictment unsealed Friday, the Rathburns knowingly bought infected body parts from cadaver centers in Arizona and Illinois and then rented them to customers for medical or dental training without revealing the parts were diseased.

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Among the examples outlined in the indictment:.

• In 2011, the Rathburns rented a head and neck for $13,108 to be used in a course titled “Advances in Periodontology” at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Cambridge, Mass. The head and neck came from an individual who tested positive for Hepatitis B, though the Rathburns hid that.

• In July 2011, another head and neck with Hepatitis B was rented for $7,360 to be used for “Advanced Bone Grafting” training provided by the California Implant Institute in San Diego.

• In October 2012, remains infected with Hepatitis B and HIV were provided for a meeting of the American Society of Anesthesiologists in Washington, D.C. The Rathburns collected $55,225 for those parts.

• In February 2012, the Rathburns delivered a package of eight fresh human heads using a Delta cargo airplane to a customer. None of the heads were embalmed, even though Rathburn claimed they were. One of those heads came from someone who had sepsis and pneumonia.

“This alleged scheme to distribute diseased body parts not only defrauded customers from the monetary value of their contracts, but also exposed them and others to infection,” U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade said in announcing the indictment. “The alleged conduct risked the health of medical students, dental students and baggage handlers.”.

Rathburn, a former University of Michigan morgue attendant, has been the central figure in a years-long investigation dubbed “Body Brokers.” The FBI and border officials were on his trail for years, but it wasn’t until December 2013 that they zeroed in on him and raided his warehouse in Detroit, seizing more than a thousand body parts — heads, hands, legs, torsos — that were then stored in a deep freezer at the Wayne County Morgue.

According to the indictment, rather than use industry-standard sterilized autopsy equipment, Rathburn used chainsaws and other types of saws to cut up the bodies. He bought his body parts from cadaver centers in Arizona and Illinois, and got discounts on parts that were infected, the indictment said. He faces wire fraud, aiding and abetting, and making false statements charges. If convicted, he could face up to 20 years in prison.

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Before getting into the body parts trade as a private dealer, Rathburn’s career included many highs. He was the coordinator of the University of Michigan’s anatomical donation program from 1984-90, but he was fired after he was caught selling bodies. While at U-M, he received patents for designs on stations where cadavers and their parts are prepared. He published a reputable journal on embalming and autopsy stations and lectured nationally on the topic of anatomy.

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In 1989, he started his own business supplying body parts: Biological International, which he ran out of an industrial warehouse near the old Detroit City Airport. Eventually, he fell on the FBI’s radar, and federal agents and border officials started tracking his shipments of body parts, including buckets of heads that arrived at Detroit Metro Airport from places like Israel and Greece. Researchers there used the heads, then sent them back to Rathburn, who would rent them over and over again for profit, according to court documents.

And he made lots of money, authorities claim. A human body is worth from $10,000 to $100,000 if sold in parts, court records show. Brains can fetch $600; elbows and hands $850.

While it is not illegal to sell body parts or tissue, the FBI investigation has centered on three crimes:.

• Bodies being dismembered without the donors’ consent and sold for profit, deceiving donors and their families who were promised they would not be sold — just used for medical research.

• Bodies going to science without the clear consent of the donors.

• Body donation centers selling body parts riddled with disease to unsuspecting medical researchers.

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The FBI notes in court documents that most body parts do get used for medical research and training. But the growing demand for body parts in the constantly evolving medical world has created a gray-black market in which body brokers are crossing both legal and ethical lines to meet this high demand.

“While this trade is not, in and of itself, illegal … Crimes have been committed,” an FBI agent wrote in an affidavit.

Detroit FBI Chief David P. Gelios said the indictment represents part of a broader investigation into what he called a “poorly regulated willed-body-to-science industry.”.

“We recognize that thousands of donor families, medical doctors and affiliated personnel across the country have been adversely affected by these illegal acts,” Gelios said. “This investigation does not stop here. We continue to work with our state and federal partners to conduct a full and rigorous investigation.”.

According to court records, Rathburn dealt only with parts that were “fresh, frozen and never embalmed.” The grisly discovery in Detroit triggered more raids across the country. Two cadaver businesses were shut down, including Rathburn’s. Thousands more body parts were seized. Numerous families of the deceased were interviewed, with many relatives saying they had no idea their loved ones’ bodies would be dismembered and sold for profit. And had they known that, records show, they never would have donated their loved ones’ bodies to science.

While the investigation is ongoing, one of Rathburn’s associates, Arizona businessman Stephen Gore, pleaded guilty in October to running an illegal body donation center in Phoenix at Biological Resource Center, which was shut down in 2014 following an FBI raid. A paper trail that started in Detroit led to that closure. A year later, that same paper trail led the FBI to Illinois, home of Rathburn’s main body parts supplier, records show. But no criminal charges have yet been filed in Illinois.

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