Prosecutors fight body broker evidence suppression

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Federal prosecutors are striking back against an attempt to suppress evidence in the case of a Grosse Pointe Park man accused of running a business that sold infected body parts on the black market.

Arthur Rathburn, 62, is accused of renting human remains, including heads and torsos, with infectious diseases to unsuspecting customers who used the human body parts for medical or dental training, according to court records.

According to a federal indictment, Rathburn allegedly dismembered bodies with a chainsaw, band saw and reciprocating saw “without using sanitary precautions.” He then allegedly stored human heads by stacking them on top of each other without using protective measures.

Last month Rathburn filed a 156-page motion in U.S. District Court in Detroit to suppress evidence seized from a Detroit warehouse at 8640 Grinnell Street, alleging the search was illegal and lacked probable cause.

Federal agents say they searched the Grinnell warehouse on Dec. 6, 2013 as part of a nation-wide multi-year investigation into certain so-called “Body Brokers” which allegedly buy and sell human cadavers, body parts, and tissue.

On Friday prosecutors filed their response to Rathurn’s motion, saying Rathburn was integral to an international network that bought and sold body parts.

“This network, as described by the affidavit, was more likely than not engaged in crimes. Bodies were bought, sold, and disposed of contrary to the will of donors. Infected remains were passed off as noninfectious. Lies were told to state and federal regulators. The Grinnell Warehouse was a hub of this activity, and the affidavit in support of the warrant provided probable cause for its search,” the motion said.

Prosecutors said the warrant authorized a search for evidence of wire fraud, interstate transportation of stolen property, and deception of the U.S. government through false statements.

“Deception in the procurement and distribution of human remains is the common factual thread tying these crimes together. Examples of this deception include distributing remains without the legally-required consent of the deceased and/or their next of kin and deceiving end-users and government regulators about diseased remains,” the motion says.

Prosecutors said facts supporting their probable cause in the case include:

■Arthur Rathburn’s company, International Biological, Inc., received cadavers and severed human remains from an Arizona company known as the Biological Resource Center. Review of death certificates revealed that heads sourced from the Arizona center and used by Rathburn’s company in medical seminars were not legally donated to science.

■Review of paperwork for 279 body parts transported by the company and sourced from the resource center revealed that 49 percent were dismembered prior to testing for HIV and hepatitis. This is contrary to the center’s standard operating procedures.

■In February of 2012, the Centers for Disease Control received a facsimile from Rathburn’s company concerning a shipment of human heads/necks from Tel Aviv to Detroit. The fax included a signed statement of non-infectiousness. The shipment was intercepted and review of death certificates revealed that one of the heads was sourced from an individual whose cause of death was listed as “Sepsis, unknown bacteria,” due to or as consequence of “aspiration pneumonia, bacteria not identified.”

■When questioned by CDC and Customs and Border Patrol about the Tel Aviv to Detroit shipment, Rathburn made statements that were later proven to be false: that the heads had been embalmed, that red liquid in the coolers was not blood but Listerine, and that he had packaged the heads himself in Israel.

■A confidential informant reported to the government that Rathburn wanted employees of his company to fabricate information and lie to the CDC regarding the Tel Aviv shipment. The informant also reported that Rathburn “intentionally changes information in company paperwork to fit his needs and then, when asked by the CDC to explain problems or discrepancies in the paperwork, blames other staff for the ‘errors.’”

■In December of 2012, a shipment of eighteen human heads arriving from Italy was intercepted at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. Investigation revealed that these heads were the joint responsibility of his company, the Arizona resource center as well as the Biological Resource Center of Illinois. Further investigation revealed that one donor, whose remains passed through the Illinois center, had explicitly restricted the use of their remains to non-profit entities in the United States.

■Another confidential informant told the government of an incident in which a local cremation facility rejected remains Rathburn sent for cremation. The identification number on the body did not match the identification number on the paperwork. The informant believed Rathburn intentionally swapped the identification number of the body in order to continue to use the body after it was due to be returned to the donor family.

Rathburn is charged with nine counts of wire fraud, three charges of making false statements, and one charge of transporting hazardous material. Rathburn faces 20 years in prison on each count. He is in federal detention. His next court has not been set.

His attorney Byron Pitts declined comment for this story.

His wife, Elizabeth Rathburn, pleaded to one count of wire fraud in March. She will pay more than $55,000 in restitution and could serve four to 10 months in prison. Her sentencing is Nov. 15 before U.S. District Judge Paul Borman.

In the Dec. 6, 2013 federal raid of the couple’s home and business, thousands of human body parts and boxes of records were seized. There are more than 33,000 documents to review in the case, many dealing with infectious diseases and other scientific matters.