Businessman convicted in tainted body parts case

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

A Grosse Pointe Park man was convicted Monday for his role in distributing tainted body parts through a business.

After deliberating for four hours, a jury convicted Arthur Rathburn on seven wire fraud counts as well as one count alleging illegal transportation of hazardous material, federal officials said in a statement.

The 63-year-old was acquitted on a false statement count, according to the release.

“The jury has delivered justice in this case and we thank trial prosecutors ... and our law enforcement partners for their outstanding work in investigating and prosecuting these particularly gruesome crimes,” interim U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider said.

Evidence presented during a two-week trial showed that Rathburn and his then-wife Elizabeth ran International Biological Inc., which primarily rented human body parts such as heads and torsos to customers who used the remains for medical or dental training, authorities reported.

Federal prosecutors claim Rathburn knowingly purchased body parts infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, as well as hepatitis B and C, then sold them to buyers.

“IBI sometimes obtained diseased remains from their suppliers at a reduced cost, due to the fact that end users of human remains generally reject infectious bodies and body parts for use in medical or dental training,” authorities wrote.

The government alleges Rathburn still resold the parts at full cost while his company, which has since closed, ignored industry standard precautions to prevent potential cross-contamination between infected remains and those that weren’t.

Though knowing the remains were diseased, he failed to disclose that to customers through deceptive language in contracts, Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Wyse said during closing arguments last week.

Evidence also found that Rathburn allowed a human head of someone who died from bacterial sepsis and aspiration pneumonia to be delivered to Delta Cargo, an air carrier, for transport, officials allege. The head was packaged in a trash bag placed in a camping cooler — violating federal regulations, investigators reported.

Rathburn had been charged with making false statements connected to the shipment, which included seven other heads packed similarly. Large quantities of blood were found in the coolers.

“Today’s verdict is a victory for the cause of justice,” said David P. Gelios, special agent in charge of the FBI Detroit division. “The fraud scheme orchestrated by IBI shocked even the most experienced of our investigative team as individuals, even in death, were victimized as IBI intentionally and recklessly marketed and transported contaminated human remains despite regulations prohibiting such practices.”

During a December 2013 raid at Rathburn’s home and office, investigators seized thousands of human body parts and boxes of records, according to a search warrant affidavit.

Witnesses who testified in the case included Elizabeth Rathburn. She pleaded guilty in 2016 to one count of wire fraud in exchange for cooperating with the government.

When asked why she and her ex-husband did not tell customers that the body parts they sought were infected with HIV and hepatitis, she replied: “Because we would have lost the contract.”

Elizabeth Rathburn also claimed her ex-husband said there was no problem selling the infected limbs and “he had an embalming process that would yield the virus inactive.”

Per a plea agreement, Elizabeth Rathburn admitted to providing human remains to a customer and falsely representing that the parts were free of certain infectious diseases. She awaits sentencing.

Other witnesses, including an FBI agent, said Arthur Rathburn kept a filthy warehouse with bodies stored skin-to-skin and used a crowbar to separate them. Dead insects and blood littered the floor, they recalled.

Rathburn’s co-counsel, Craig Daly, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday evening.

During closing arguments last week, he told jurors the federal government “has no business in this case.”

“This is a civil matter,” Daly said. “(Arthur Rathburn) never violated any federal laws. This is a non-harm, no-cause contract case.”

Buyers received contracts with wording specifying that “there were no guarantees” the bodies or human remains were not infectious, Daly told officials.

“There’s not one shred of evidence that anyone was infected,” he said.

Arthur Rathburn faces a maximum statutory penalty of 20 years in prison for each of the wire fraud counts, federal officials said Monday.

He also faces up to five years in prison for the transporting hazardous material charge.