‘Bucket of Heads,’ ‘Cooler’ with ‘Genitalia’ Alleged in Body Parts Broker Raid

In July 2019, a number of macabre stories circulated on social media that were based on recent reports that an Arizona facility that was supposed to be processing bodies donated to science was the subject of a gruesome and macabre raid.

In July 2019, local news stations reported that the unsettling practices had apparently been uncovered in 2013 and 2014:

Agents found buckets full of body parts and different people sewn together and hung up on a wall, according to testimony by one of the agents.

[…]

In 2014, the FBI raided the facility in hazmat suits as part of a multi-state investigation into the illegal trafficking and sale of human body parts.

For the first time, testimony from one of the FBI agents who conducted the raid has been released to the public.

The agent said he found a “cooler filled with male genitalia,” “a bucket of heads, arms and legs,” “infected heads,” and a small woman’s head sewn onto a large male torso “like Frankenstein” hanging up on the wall, which is called a “morbid joke” in the lawsuit.

Gizmodo reported that details of the claim were years old, but they had only been made public in mid-2019:

In a sworn statement, former FBI agent Mark Cwynar stated that he saw “various unsettling scenes” at BRC, including “infected heads,” “a bucket of heads, arms and legs,” and a cooler “filled” with male genitals, the Arizona Republic and KTVK report. Additionally, Cwynar says he discovered a macabre wall hanging: a woman’s head sewn onto a man’s torso “in a ‘Frankenstein’ manner.”

[…]

Cwynar’s testimony has come to light as part of a lawsuit by 33 people who say that BRC acquired their family members’ bodies through “false statements.” Plaintiff Troy Harp, who gave his mother and grandmother’s bodies to BRC, told KTVK that he believed they would be used for scientific research.

Details reported across news sites seemed to originate largely with a July 19 2019 Arizona Republic article, “‘Cooler filled with male genitalia’ found in raid of Phoenix body-donation company.” The outlet explained that the details were part of a sworn deposition ahead of an October 2019 civil suit against the facility and its owner:

The now-shuttered, for-profit Biological Resource Center specialized in accepting the bodies of people after they had died, and in exchange offering their families free pickup of the bodies plus the cremated remains of the body parts the company did not sell.

Arizona is a regulatory-free zone for the body-parts industry. At least four body donation companies are operating in Arizona, in addition to a non-profit cryonics company that freezes people after they die with the intent of one day bringing them back to life.

An FBI special agent, during a January 2014 raid of the Biological Resource Center, stumbled on what he described as “various unsettling scenes.” The agent’s grisly eyewitness account of the raid was recently revealed in a civil lawsuit against the business and its owner, Stephen Gore. The case is set for trial Oct. 21 [2019] in Maricopa County Superior Court.

The raid at Arizona’s Biological Resource Center was first reported in 2014. A September 2014 article in The Atlantic (“The FBI Is Shutting Down Shady Cadaver Centers Left and Right,”) described a larger investigation:

The second case in the FBI’s investigation is far, far away from Michigan. Cut to sunny, hot Arizona in January [2014]: 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.

A March 2015 story made mention of the larger investigation across states, and in December 2015, KNXV-TV reported that a suit brought against the Biological Resource Center by families that same month:

[In December 2015], eight families who donated loved ones to Biological Resource Center filed suit against the center’s owners and others affiliated with it.

People had agreed to donate their bodies to the companies to help further science. In several instances, the donors were told their body would not be cut up and sold for a profit.

[…]

According to a federal search warrant, the going rate for a head was $500. Arms were $750 and a whole body could snatch up to $5,000.

The FBI said BRC was making a profit off of dismembering and selling the remains without donor consent.

“I’ve never seen something so horrific, to take advantage or people who are grieving and vulnerable.”

The lawsuit alleges the misconduct started back in 2007. However, donors’ families were not notified until January 2015 about the [initial allegations.]

In January 2016, details of the purported practices at the Arizona facility first came to light:

According to the indictment unsealed on Friday, the Rathburns knowingly bought infected body parts from cadaver centers in Arizona and Illinois and then rented them to customers for medical or dental training without revealing the parts were diseased.

Among the examples outlined in the indictment:

  • In 2011, the Rathburns rented a head and neck for $13,108 to be used in a course titled “Advances in Periodontology” at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Cambridge, Mass. The head and neck came from an individual who tested positive for Hepatitis B, though the Rathburns hid that.
  • In July 2011, another head and neck with Hepatitis B was rented for $7,360 to be used for “Advanced Bone Grafting” training provided by the California Implant Institute in San Diego.
  • In October 2012, remains infected with Hepatitis B and HIV were provided for a meeting of the American Society of Anesthesiologists in Washington, D.C. The Rathburns collected $55,225 for those parts.
  • In February 2012, the Rathburns delivered a package of eight fresh human heads using a Delta cargo airplane to a customer. None of the heads were embalmed, even though Rathburn claimed they were. One of those heads came from someone who had sepsis and pneumonia.

In December 2017, Reuters disclosed some of the details of the Arizona raid in a larger piece about “body parts brokers,” reporting on the body parts and organ trades:

Before brokers accept a body, they typically present the donor or next of kin with a consent form. These agreements are often written in technical language that many donors and relatives say they find hard to understand. The documents give brokers the right to dismember the dead, then sell or rent body parts to medical researchers and educators, often for hundreds or thousands of dollars. At BRC, a whole body sold for $5,893, records show.

Since 2004, when a federal health panel unsuccessfully called on the U.S. government to regulate the industry, Reuters found that more than 2,357 body parts obtained by brokers from at least 1,638 people have ended up misused, abused or desecrated.

Documents reviewed for this article indicate that those figures are vastly understated. The extent of BRC’s operation surprised even investigators who raided the Phoenix-based company in 2014.

There, agents discovered 10 tons of frozen human remains – 1,755 total body parts that included 281 heads, 241 shoulders, 337 legs and 97 spines.

Applying a state forfeiture law, authorities hauled away the contents of BRC’s freezers, filling 142 body bags. One bag held parts from at least 36 different people.

Although the raid of Arizona’s Biological Resource Center took place in early 2014, new details gathered in the course of a pending civil lawsuit came to light in July 2019. Those details originated with agents’ depositions based on their eyewitness accounts, but the case had not yet gone to trial as of July 2019.

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