Man accused of selling tainted body parts goes on trial
Detroit – An FBI agent described a scene straight out of a horror film when she and dozens of other agents raided the warehouse of a Grosse Pointe Park man accused of renting out infected body parts on the black market.
Testifying Friday at the trial of Arthur Rathburn in U.S. District Court, FBI Special Agent Leslie Larsen described a grisly and gruesome scene of human heads and other body parts stored in Tupperware and Rubbermaid containers and 55-gallon drums. She said she saw caked and dried blood on the floor while a foul odor emanated from several rooms in the warehouse.
Larsen said a “cutting room” at the east-side Detroit facility had “piles” of dead flies and large cutting tools that included chainsaws, circular saws and a “full length” bandsaw.
The agent said she saw a cooler sitting in the floor that contained “piles” of body parts and that “many of the (human remains) were frozen together in one frozen chunk.” She said some of bodies were missing arms and legs.
Some bodies, she said, were packed in a fashion where they were “flesh to flesh” and a crowbar and other tools had to be used to pry them loose.
Rathburn’s co-counsel produced pictures that showed a neat and orderly area of the warehouse that contained medical tools but the FBI agent said the warehouse was “filthy” with some tools used to cut up bodies being stored next to ingredients for a sandwich as well as other food products.
In his opening statements, federal prosecutor John Neal described a house of horror operated by Rathburn.
“This is a case about lying, deception,” Neal said, adding that Rathburn failed to disclose that some of the bodies he sold were infected with HIV and forms of hepatitis.
Neal told jurors it was not illegal for Rathburn to sell body parts but that he sold body parts that were infected with HIV and Hepatitis B and C, which was not disclosed to his buyers, mostly medical professionals.
“Arthur Rathburn chose to conceal that information from his customers,” Neal said.
Neal, in arguments before U.S. District Judge Paul Borman, said Rathburn “knowingly” obtained body parts that tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and Hepatitis B and C and sold them to unsuspecting buyers. Rathburn is charged with nine counts of wire fraud, three counts of making false statements and one count of transporting hazardous material.
A physician who is an officer with the American Society of Anesthesiologists also took the stand Friday, saying he ordered a human cadaver from Rathburn’s business for a medical workshop held in Washington, D.C., in October 2012.
Under questioning by Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Wyse, Dr. Kevin Vorenkamp said he is “not aware” of any medical professionals who used cadavers infected with HIV or hepatitis for medical purposes.
Wyse produced a copy of a letter from an Illinois-based supplier of human remains and cadavers that said the cadaver Vorenkamp’s group purchased for the workshop was infected with HIV and hepatitis B.
The supplier gave Rathburn a discounted rate of $3,500 on the cadaver, according to an invoice that Wyse produced. Vorenkamp said his organization was never told the body was infected.
Rathburn was indicted in January 2016 by a grand jury in Detroit that alleged he falsely claimed eight human heads shipped in 2012 had been embalmed. Agents searched the Grinnell warehouse on Dec. 6, 2013, as part of a nation-wide, multi-year investigation into certain so-called “Body Brokers” who allegedly buy and sell human cadavers, body parts and tissue.
Rathburn operated International Biological Inc., which rented out body parts for medical or dental training.
His ex-wife Elizabeth Rathburn, who was an employee at the business, pleaded to one count of wire fraud in March 2016. She is expected to testify for the government.
James Howarth, an attorney for Arthur Rathburn, said it’s a case about “contract.”
“Mr. Rathburn followed the regulations and stayed in compliance (with the law),” Howarth told jurors Friday.
Howarth said Rathburn, who is one of two of prosecution star witnesses, is going to testify against her husband as part of a “very sweet deal” in exchange for her guilty plea.
Howarth said Friday during his opening statements that Elizabeth Rathburn was “responsible for all that would go wrong” with the former couple’s business because she oversaw the financial billings and shipments of the body parts.
Howarth, who is representing Arthur Rathburn, along with co-counsel Craig Daly, said Arthur Rathburn did not accept a plea deal “because he is not guilty.”
Testimony in the case continues Tuesday. The trial is expected to last five weeks.