The Federal Bureau of Investigation has a particularly morbid case on their hands: they are investigating a series of body donation programs. The programs, spread across Oregon, Michigan, and Arizona, collect the remains of those who wish to have their corpses used for medical research.
Federal officials have offered very little insight into the investigation or how the three facilities in question might be linked. The Guardian received confirmation of the Oregon investigation, as well as the raids in Arizona and Michigan, from an FBI official. However, when asked for further information, the federal officials had no further comment. In a phone call with federal officials seeking comment as to what the raids unveiled, The Wire was offered no additional information.
One Michigan embalmer seems to be a piece of this mysterious puzzle. Arthur Rathburn held a mortuary license, however, the address he used for his business, International Biological Inc., did not have a funeral home license. Embalming requires a number of chemicals — of particular note is formaldehyde, a toxic chemical that, within funeral homes, is regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Without this funeral home license, Rathburn would have had access to a number of preservation toxins, but would be using them without regulation. It would also allow him to do, essentially, whatever he pleased with the bodies—including sell them or store them on ice instead of preserving them with chemicals. One report indicates Rathburn left the body parts of 1,000 different people, including arms, legs, and heads, on ice in order to safely store them until they found black market buyers. This underworld is extremely profitable: an entire body can bring over $5,000 if cut into pieces. Brains are $600, elbows and hands are $850.
In 2006, Annie Cheney named Rathburn as a body parts dealer in her book Body Brokers. She wrote, "In 2002, by his own account Rathburn delivered forty-two heads and necks to the Marriott Marquis on Broadway."
When the FBI investigated Rathburn's practice in December, they wore hazmat suits, indicating that preserved corpses may have been within the building. The search lasted more than 24 hours, during which Fox News reporter Maurielle Lue witnessed five to six FBI agents carry "brightly colored trash bags filled with evidence" into investigation tents.
In April, the Michigan Bureau of Corporations, Securities and Commercial Licensing revoked Rathburn's licenses, made him permanently ineligible for new licenses, made him ineligible to work for the state, and fined him $10,000. This Bureau found a number of violations by Rathburn, including "aiding and abetting another in engaging in the unlicensed practice of funeral directing or embalming; failing to comply with a regulation of a state, affecting the handling, custody, care, or transportation of a dead human body; and engaging in the practice of funeral directing from an unlicensed establishment."
The second case in the FBI's investigation is far, far away from Michigan. Cut to sunny, hot Arizona in January: Steve Gore's facility, The Biological Resource Center of Arizona, is raided by federal agents. Sources told WXYZABC News that Gore and Rathburn were in business together, dealing in human body parts. Gore's business has been shut down ever since. He has only offered this statement:
On January 21, 2014, the FBI and members of the Attorney General’s Office visited Biological Resource Center of Arizona with a search and seizure warrant. Our staff willingly cooperated and answered all of their questions without counsel and we will continue to cooperate with the authorities to the best of our abilities.
As per the Attorney's General message to the public, little information has been made available. This lack of information has led many to speculate and to make incorrect conclusions. We hope to know more within the coming days and weeks, at which time we will provide additional information.
Please be assured that the staff of Biological Resource Center of Arizona works diligently each day to serve and honor our donors and their families with dignity and respect. We adhere to the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, which governs anatomical donation. Through our informed consent process, individuals are able to contribute to the advancement of medical education, research and training.
Biological Resource Center of Arizona does not provide organs or other tissues for transplantation. For nearly a decade, we have worked with universities, researchers, medical device companies and educators who rely on these selfless gifts from donors to provide better healthcare and quality of life for our society.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank the many friends, family and colleagues of Biological Resource Center of Arizona who have shown their unwavering support over the last several days.
Through our cooperation with the authorities, we are confident factual information is forthcoming that will further demonstrate Biological Resource Center of Arizona's ongoing commitment to donors, their families, the integrity of the donor process and the mission to improve healthcare for everyone."
Because of the limited information from Gore and the Attorney General, it remains unclear if this location will be officially charged with the sale of donated bodies or body parts.
The newest addition to this FBI investigation is Oregon's Legacy Health. Willamette Week's Aaron Mesh first noticed the investigation on August 27. Sources told Mesh that it was two employees who first began questioning Legacy's use of donated bodies. They were promptly fired. The whistleblowers "alleged that Legacy placed employees and medical students at risk of exposure to disease from cadavers and may have failed to obtain consent from families to use their relatives’ corpses."
Legacy has been subpoenaed for their records. They offered this statement, "Health care is highly regulated by both state and federal agencies. Legacy Health is regularly contacted by state and federal agencies for documents, and we completely comply with those requests."
Though it appears all three facilities are being investigated for what may be an underground body trade, or at least unintended use of donated corpses in some form, it remains unclear if all three facilities are linked. FBI spokesperson David Porter told The Guardian he was "unaware of the search of the Arizona site" (Gore's facility) but did confirm the search in Michigan.
Regardless of their connection, or lack thereof, these investigations have a negative impact on clean, law abiding body donation facilities. Corrina Patzer, director of business services for Lions VisionGift, an organization which collects ocular tissue donations for transplants and research, told Oregon Live that these cases negatively impact their organization. "People are confused," said Patzer, "They just want to verify that we're not one of those organizations they've read about. It impacts transplants, it impacts donations."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.