DETROIT(Reuters) - When U.S. authorities arrested Arthur Rathburn last year, they hailed their investigation as a milestone in efforts to police a growing industry: brokers who acquire bodies donated to science, dissect them and sell or lease the parts for profit.
The indictment alleges that Rathburn stored bodies destined for medical education and training in grisly conditions and dismembered them with a chainsaw. He is accused of endangering clients, mostly health care workers, by renting them cadavers and severed heads that were infected with HIV and hepatitis.
A government news release touted the arrest as “a significant step,” one that demonstrates that protecting the public is “a high priority.”
But authorities missed repeated opportunities to rein in Rathburn, Reuters found. Warning signs about his activities date back more than a dozen years.
In the mid-2000s, for example, New York state health inspectors twice reprimanded him for failure to provide documentation that bodies he acquired were in fact willingly donated. Rathburn also had been on the radar of federal authorities since 2010, when border agents first questioned him about 10 heads he was transporting from Canada, court records show.
Over the next three years, agents documented five similar cross-border shipments, one that included a severed penis. But agents did not raid Rathburn’s warehouse until December 2013. In the meantime, he acquired, sold and rented out more bodies and parts.
The failure to intervene sooner shows how easily brokers can evade government scrutiny and points to a gap in U.S. law surrounding the body trade, an industry that typically targets the poor with incentives such as free cremation. Rathburn and his then-wife were charged with defrauding customers, not with selling or desecrating human remains.
Selling or leasing body parts is not a federal crime and is largely unrestricted in all but a few states.
“The FBI told me they found my sister’s shoulder” inside Rathburn’s warehouse, said Carol Keenan. Her sibling had donated her body in 2013, hoping to aid cancer researchers.
“It was hard enough to lose her, but this has been devastating,” Keenan said. “I was shocked when I learnt there’s no regulation – that any Joe-fly-by-night can start up a company and nobody knows what he’s doing.”
Rathburn, 63, faces trial in January on charges of defrauding health care workers and lying to federal agents. He has pleaded not guilty and remains jailed. His ex-wife, Elizabeth Rathburn, pleaded guilty to one count of fraud and is cooperating with prosecutors. Neither the Rathburns nor their attorneys responded to requests for comment for this story. The FBI also declined to comment.
A chance to establish national standards governing body brokers came in 2004, after disturbing reports emerged about the nascent industry.
In one case, police arrested a California university employee for secretly selling donated cadavers. In another, the U.S. Army admitted that bodies originally donated to a university for educational purposes were used in landmine experiments. Harper’s Magazine also published a 10-page exposé on body brokers, briefly citing Rathburn as a supplier.
Appalled by the reports, a federal health advisory panel meeting that year called for regulation of body brokers. The panel asked the U.S. government to apply the same strict oversight to the body parts trade that already governed organ transplantation.
Nothing came of the panel’s recommendation.
Since that failed effort, the market for body parts has grown, and abuses abound, some reminiscent of those the 2004 federal panel sought to prevent. A Reuters review of court, police and internal broker records and interviews identified more than 2,357 body parts obtained by brokers from at least 1,638 people that were misused, abused or desecrated.
The customers include the U.S. government. As Reuters reported in December, the Army used heads, arms and legs from more than 20 bodies in blast experiments in 2012 and 2013, even though donors had not given permission. In one of the most egregious examples, the military used the body of an Army veteran who signed a donor form two months before he died of cancer in 2013. The man was so angry about the poor health care provided by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that he checked “No” to military experimentation on the consent form. It didn’t matter. His body was used in a violent Army test anyway.
An Army spokeswoman said the military was deceived by its supplier and never “knowingly used the bodies of donors against their wishes.”
Asked about the federal panel’s 2004 call to regulate body brokers, a U.S. Health & Human Services Department spokesman said the agency was under “no obligation” to accept the recommendation. How and whether to police the industry, spokesman Martin Kramer added, is left to each state.
Most states, including Michigan, don’t regulate body brokers closely, or at all. In those states, a broker may legally sell a donated cadaver or its parts, such as heads and arms, so long as the remains are not intended for transplantation. Only 10 states provide any oversight. Just a handful require licensing or disclosure.
As a result, donors and their families are left to rely on the good faith of the people who run the programs, said retired anatomy professor William Burkel, who supervised Rathburn at the University of Michigan when they both worked there in the 1980s.
“Because the laws vary so much from state to state,” Burkel said, “there is a lot of opportunity for people like Mr. Rathburn to do it without any sort of oversight.”
Rathburn’s alleged victims included not only donors and their families but also the doctors, dentists and other health care workers who acquired parts from him.
Steve Schomisch, who directs surgical training at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine in Cleveland, learnt recently how unregulated the industry can be. Federal authorities told him that a head Rathburn supplied to train Case Western neurosurgeons in 2013 was among a number of body parts that could not be traced to a donor, raising questions about the donation’s legitimacy.
“We felt betrayed,” Schomisch said. “Then we said, ‘What can we do to make sure this doesn’t happen again?’”
Schomisch formed a university committee to research the way the industry supplies body parts; the panel found little oversight and few rules. Today, Case Western leases only from a handful of pre-screened brokers that follow standards established by the American Association of Tissue Banks, a national accrediting organisation.
“It’s such a difficult decision whether to donate,” Schomisch said of people who bequeath their bodies. “I think you just assume that by donating, you’re doing something good. But people like Art Rathburn tarnish that.”
Rathburn was hired in 1984 by the University of Michigan body donation programme, which uses cadavers for anatomy classes and research. He was 30 years old with a community college degree and a work ethic that endeared him to better-educated colleagues.
“He had a charisma about him,” said former supervisor Stuart Baggaley.
Rathburn arrived at a critical time. University archives show that Rathburn helped the programme rebound from complaints by donor families about poor customer service.
“He was just energetic, doing something all of the time,” said Burkel, who led the programme during those years. “He had a lot of ideas.”
One merited publication in a scientific journal and a patent: “A State-of-the-Art Embalming and Autopsy Station,” a device that promised safer and easier preparation of dead bodies.
In 1988, Rathburn was prominently featured in the monthly Ann Arbor Observer newspaper. He expounded on the significance of cadavers in the classroom and told a whimsical tale about his entry into the business – a friend bet him $10 he wouldn’t fill out a funeral home job application. He did. In a photograph accompanying the story, Rathburn wears a tie, lab coat and broad smile.
Two years later, however, Rathburn left the school, records show, following unspecified allegations of misconduct. He obtained a court order barring release of his personnel records. But recently, two people with direct knowledge disclosed the alleged transgression: Rathburn mishandled the donor ashes, a cardinal sin in the funeral industry.
With that information shielded from public view, Rathburn set out in the early 1990s to sell body parts.
One person Rathburn impressed was Ed Eichenlaub, then a doctor’s assistant in Pittsburgh who began working with him to supply body parts for research and surgical seminars.
“I would call up Art and say, ‘I need half a dozen human heads,’” he said. Later, Eichenlaub said, he worked for Rathburn handling body parts at medical seminars in New Orleans, San Francisco and Chicago.
“I won’t lie to you. It was creepy,” said Eichenlaub. “You arrive at this place and there is this huge ice chest and you open it and there are a dozen heads. They’re wrapped up, but it takes a special person to do this.”
One reason entrepreneurs like Rathburn can avoid scrutiny is the patchwork of state laws relating to the sale of body parts. Only 10 states provide meaningful oversight, and almost all of them do it differently.
For example, Virginia and Florida regulators need to give advance permission before a broker may bring body parts into the state for research or training. In Oklahoma and Oregon, regulators do not require prior approval to ship individual body parts, but they do inspect brokers regularly and require stringent record-keeping.
In two of the 10 states, the laws do not appear to be a high priority. In New Jersey, an official said, a 2008 law restricting the business to nonprofits and requiring brokers to register with health authorities hasn’t been implemented, because the legislature failed to authorise funds. In Maine, a state spokesman said that although the law requires brokers to be registered, officials haven’t bothered to create rules because no one has ever applied for a permit.
Perhaps no agency in America imposes tighter controls on body brokers than the New York state health department. New York requires licenses, inspections and annual statistical reports – for any broker, even those not based in the state, that ships body parts to customers in New York. State health officials travel around the country to inspect brokers.
Still, neither New York’s laws nor its regulators were enough to stop Rathburn, according to a review of court documents and state health records obtained under open-records laws.
In 2004, a New York inspector travelled to Rathburn’s warehouse in Detroit. Though Rathburn was notified of the visit a week in advance, the inspector still found serious deficiencies – flaws that demonstrate how body parts can enter a black hole of accountability after being donated, dissected and shipped to customers. Among the problems: Rathburn could not produce documents proving that bodies were donated willingly.
“There are no such records for whole bodies and body segments received for use at the facility,” the report said.
Rathburn, the records show, contended that privacy laws and supplier policies prevented him from providing such proof. New York officials said that was no excuse for not supplying consent forms.
“Your plan of correction,” inspectors wrote him in 2005, “does not address the core of this deficiency.”
In 2006, officials told Rathburn he could no longer ship body parts to New York until he resolved their concerns. In 2007, New York health officials issued Rathburn a provisional licence, allowing him to resume operations there.
In a statement to Reuters, New York officials said they conducted a “thorough examination.” A New York health official added that her agency did not notify Michigan authorities at the time because “such a regulatory agency does not exist” in that state. The official did not elaborate on what agency that might be.
The records show that, from 2005 through 2007, Rathburn’s business continued unabated outside New York as he distributed more than 200 severed heads.
At least one broker voiced concern during this period. Walter Mitchell, former owner of BioGift, an Oregon body donation firm, said he stopped supplying body parts to Rathburn after a 2006 incident. A week after shipping two human torsos to Rathburn in Detroit, Mitchell got a call from the airline that transported them. No one had picked up the packages at the airport.
“When are you going to come?” an airline employee asked, according to Mitchell. “The coolers are leaking and it smells.” Rathburn ultimately picked up the torsos, Mitchell said.
In the mid-2000s, Rathburn launched an ambitious expansion, one that would lead to bankruptcy.
For $1.8 million in 2005, Rathburn’s company bought a funeral home and warehouse in Richmond, Virginia. People familiar with the deal said he chose the properties because they were strategically located near two interstate highway exits, a convention centre and a medical school. The neighbourhood also was on the upswing.
“They were going to bring in loads of cadavers to be stored at the warehouse and, as needed, transferred to the funeral home, then to medical training events,” recalled former city councilman Bill Pantele. “Having invested a lot of years in revitalization of that neighbourhood, I thought, ‘This is a bad idea.’”
Faced with community opposition, Rathburn abandoned the plan and struggled financially. While his Michigan company grossed almost $900,000 annually from 2006 to 2008, records show, debts mounted.
By late 2008, when Rathburn’s company declared bankruptcy, it reported assets of $72,130 and debts of $621,905. It owed $210,402 in back taxes and at least $175,000 to companies supplying body parts. In court records, Rathburn described the Virginia venture as “an ill-conceived plan.”
As part of the bankruptcy filing, Rathburn provided a list of assets. The inventory included 14 chairs, 10 file cabinets, 91 heads, 18 spines, six hips and a copy of the Hippocratic Oath. He put the total market value of the body parts at $160,900.
Despite the bankruptcy, Rathburn continued to operate. Through 2013, six body brokers shipped him more than 800 body parts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, court and New York health department records show.
And federal authorities came into contact with Rathburn or his employees a dozen times – including six border crossings – from 2010 through 2013.
In 2010 and again in 2011, federal law enforcement records show, Rathburn was stopped returning from Canada. Each time, he was carrying 10 human heads.
In 2012, picnic-style coolers containing eight heads in red liquid arrived at the Detroit airport. Border agents confronted Rathburn. Among the lies agents allege Rathburn told them was that the liquid wasn’t blood, but Listerine mouthwash, used to preserve specimens.
The alleged lies to the federal agents appeared to accelerate the investigation of Rathburn, court records show, though no one intervened to search his warehouse or stop his business. Seven months later, his indictment alleges, Rathburn sent a cadaver infected with Hepatitis B and HIV to a medical convention in Washington, D.C. No attendees were harmed, although they would not learn of the potential danger for years.
In August 2013, New York officials inspected the Detroit warehouse once more – and again reported problems with Rathburn’s ability to keep proper records for each body part. No other action was taken against him at the time. Rathburn continued to acquire bodies for $5,000 and heads for $500 until late 2013.
Among those remains: the head, two legs and a shoulder from Glorious Pearl Jeffries, according to her daughter, Lachell Jeffries-Hanson. The Chicago-area wedding planner, who died at age 72 of a pulmonary embolism, hoped her donation would educate others, the daughter recalled. The daughter said the FBI told her recently that the donation firm that took her mother’s body distributed some of its parts to Rathburn.
“You don’t really read through everything,” Jeffries-Hanson said of the donation paperwork she signed. “I was distraught.”
In December 2013, after nearly four years of investigation, the FBI raided Rathburn’s warehouse and office. Inside, authorities said, agents found “thousands” of body parts.
“Rathburn stored human heads by stacking them directly on top of each other without any protective barrier,” authorities said in a court filing.
The FBI began informing next of kin with a form letter: “There is nothing that I can say that can make this news easy for you. As a victim, however, you have the right to know the truth...”
“We want justice,” Jeffries-Hanson said. What troubles her most, she said, is that her mother’s head, which she thought had been cremated, was sitting on someone’s shelf. “That’s her face, that’s her brain, that’s her, that’s what made her function.”
Rathburn was arrested in January 2016. By then, he told agents, he was homeless and living out of his van.
Reported by Brian Grow and John Shiffman; Edited by Blake Morrison