Grosse Pointers charged in infectious body parts scheme

Holly Fournier
The Detroit News

A Grosse Pointe Park couple face several charges over their alleged involvement in a black-market scheme to sell infectious body parts, some of which were packaged and transported in ways that exposed others to diseases, according to federal officials.

Arthur Rathburn, 62, and Elizabeth Rathburn, 55, are charged with wire fraud, transportation of hazardous material, and false statements involving an alleged scheme to distribute body parts, some of which tested positive for diseases including HIV and hepatitis, U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade announced Friday.

The gory scheme involved allegedly selling infectious body parts to buyers unaware of the infections, stacking some dismembered heads in freezers above pools of frozen blood and transporting others inside trash bags stuffed in coolers, then claiming that blood found in the coolers was mouthwash.

The Rathburns are accused of being involved in a black market where whole bodies sold for $5,000, heads for $500 and arms for $750. The case centered on so-called “body brokers,” individuals and businesses that bought and sold human bodies, organs and tissues donated for medical education and research.

The 13-count indictment, filed Jan. 19 and unsealed Friday upon the arrest of the defendants, alleges the couple owned and operated International Biological Inc., a company tasked with renting human body parts for the purposes of medical or dental training. The couple is accused of obtaining bodies and body parts from Chicago-based companies Anatomical Service Inc. and Biological Resource Center of Illinois, which received the parts from Arizona-based Biological Resource Center.

Arthur Rathburn allegedly dismembered the bodies with a chainsaw, band saw and reciprocating saw “without using sanitary precautions,” officials said in the indictment. He then allegedly stored human heads by stacking them directly on top of each other without protective barriers. Pools of frozen blood were found at the bottom of the company’s freezers, officials said.

The couple knew many of the deceased individuals died from or tested positive for infectious diseases and received the many of the infected parts for a reduced price, officials said in the indictment. They allegedly hid those test results from their customers, knowing the parts would not be accepted otherwise. The scheme allowed the couple to profit from infectious remains sold to “unwitting customers” in violation of their contracts and industry standards aimed at preventing cross-contamination between infectious and non-infectious remains, officials said.

The indictment further alleges that Arthur Rathburn risked the health of others by transporting eight human heads that had not been embalmed via the air carrier Delta Cargo, packed only in trash bags and camping coolers. One of the heads belonged to an individual known by Rathburn to have died from bacterial sepsis and aspiration pneumonia, officials said. Large amounts of blood were found within the coolers.

Rathburn has been charged with making three false statements about the shipment: claiming the infectious head was not hazardous material, that the dismembered heads were embalmed and that the blood found in the coolers was actually Listerine.

“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,” McQuade said in a statement. “The alleged conduct risked the health of medical students, dental students and baggage handlers.”

If convicted on all charges, the Rathburns face 20 years in prison for each of nine counts of wire fraud, officials said. Arthur Rathburn also faces five years for transporting hazardous material and five years for each of three counts of making false statements.

The Detroit branch of the Federal Bureau of Investigations on Friday pledged the indictment marks the beginning of a longer fight against illegal body sales.

“These indictments represent one step in the FBI’s larger investigation into violations of federal law by individuals working within the poorly regulated willed-body-to-science industry,” Special Agent in Charge David P. Gelios said in a statement. “We recognize that thousands of donor families, medical doctors and affiliated personnel across the country have been adversely affected by these illegal acts. This investigation does not stop here.”

The charges against the Rathburns come two years after federal agents in December 2013 raided their home and business. Investigators seized thousands of human body parts and boxes of records.

The body parts, including heads, hands, legs and torsos, have since been stored inside a deep freezer at the Wayne County Morgue, according to Lloyd Jackson, spokesman for the county Medical Examiner’s Office.

The alleged scheme was outlined in a federal search warrant affidavit unsealed last year that described a wide-ranging investigation in Michigan, Illinois and Arizona.

According to court records, the FBI and other federal agencies investigated brokers who allegedly defrauded donors about how bodies would be used, sold body parts that were infected with HIV and Hepatitis B and C, and lied to investigators.

The bodies were used in contradiction of the will of donors and their next of kin, investigators said. Donors also were allegedly misled by Biological Resource Center of Illinois.

M. David Weisman, attorney for Biological Resource Center of Illinois, has said the company was cooperating with the investigation and that its practices were in line with industry standards.

The mother of one donor was told that her son’s tissue would be donated to places such as colleges and research centers, according to officials. She was led to believe that her son’s body would not be sold. Yet her son’s body was sold in September 2013 to Rathburn’s company for $5,000, according to federal records.

The body was dismembered and pieces were used in an international teaching course, investigators alleged. Agents seized the son’s head, legs and left shoulder during a raid of Rathburn’s company in December 2013.

The state of Michigan in 2014 suspended Rathburn’s mortuary license, alleging he embalmed bodies at a Detroit address that didn’t have a funeral home license. New York also yanked a license for a human tissue bank. It said Rathburn’s company disposed of tissue in a dangerous manner.

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