Special Report: In room of horrors, physique attorney built tellurian heads


DETROIT(Reuters) – When U.S. authorities arrested Arthur Rathburn final year, they hailed their hearing as a miracle in efforts to troops a flourishing industry: brokers who acquire bodies donated to science, disintegrate them and sell or franchise a tools for profit.

The complaint alleges that Rathburn stored bodies unfailing for medical credentials and training in gruesome conditions and dismembered them with a chainsaw. He is indicted of endangering clients, mostly health caring workers, by renting them cadavers and severed heads that were putrescent with HIV and hepatitis.

A supervision news recover touted a detain as “a poignant step,” one that demonstrates that safeguarding a open is “a high priority.”

But authorities missed steady opportunities to rein in Rathburn, Reuters found. Warning signs about his activities date behind some-more than a dozen years.

In a mid-2000s, for example, New York state health inspectors twice reprimanded him for disaster to yield support that bodies he acquired were in fact frankly donated. Rathburn also had been on a radar of sovereign authorities given 2010, when limit agents initial questioned him about 10 heads he was transporting from Canada, probity annals show.

Over a subsequent 3 years, agents documented 5 identical cross-border shipments, one that enclosed a severed penis. But agents did not raid Rathburn’s room until Dec 2013. In a meantime, he acquired, sole and rented out some-more bodies and parts.

The disaster to meddle earlier shows how simply brokers can hedge supervision inspection and points to a opening in U.S. law surrounding a physique trade, an attention that typically targets a bad with incentives such as giveaway cremation. Rathburn and his then-wife were charged with defrauding customers, not with offered or desecrating tellurian remains.

Selling or leasing physique tools is not a sovereign crime and is mostly unlimited in all yet a few states.

“The FBI told me they found my sister’s shoulder” inside Rathburn’s warehouse, pronounced Carol Keenan. Her family had donated her physique in 2013, anticipating to assist cancer researchers.

“It was tough adequate to remove her, yet this has been devastating,” Keenan said. “I was repelled when we schooled there’s no law – that any Joe-fly-by-night can start adult a association and nobody knows what he’s doing.”

Rathburn, 63, faces hearing in Jan on charges of defrauding health caring workers and fibbing to sovereign agents. He has pleaded not guilty and stays jailed. His ex-wife, Elizabeth Rathburn, pleaded guilty to one count of rascal and is auxiliary with prosecutors. Neither a Rathburns nor their attorneys responded to requests for criticism for this story. The FBI also declined to comment.


A possibility to settle inhabitant standards ruling physique brokers came in 2004, after unfortunate reports emerged about a nascent industry.

In one case, troops arrested a California university worker for personally offered donated cadavers. In another, a U.S. Army certified that bodies creatively donated to a university for educational functions were used in landmine experiments. Harper’s Magazine also published a 10-page exposé on physique brokers, quickly citing Rathburn as a supplier.

Appalled by a reports, a sovereign health advisory row assembly that year called for law of physique brokers. The row asked a U.S. supervision to request a same despotic slip to a physique tools trade that already governed organ transplantation.

Nothing came of a panel’s recommendation.

Since that unsuccessful effort, a marketplace for physique tools has grown, and abuses abound, some suggestive of those a 2004 sovereign row sought to prevent. A Reuters hearing of court, troops and inner attorney annals and interviews identified some-more than 2,357 physique tools performed by brokers from during slightest 1,638 people that were misused, abused or desecrated.

The business embody a U.S. government. As Reuters reported in December, a Army used heads, arms and legs from some-more than 20 bodies in blast experiments in 2012 and 2013, even yet donors had not given permission. In one of a many gross examples, a troops used a physique of an Army maestro who sealed a donor form dual months before he died of cancer in 2013. The male was so indignant about a bad health caring supposing by a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that he checked “No” to troops review on a agree form. It didn’t matter. His physique was used in a aroused Army exam anyway.

An Army mouthpiece pronounced a troops was cheated by a retailer and never “knowingly used a bodies of donors opposite their wishes.”

Asked about a sovereign panel’s 2004 call to umpire physique brokers, a U.S. Health Human Services Department orator pronounced a group was underneath “no obligation” to accept a recommendation. How and either to troops a industry, orator Martin Kramer added, is left to any state.

Most states, including Michigan, don’t umpire physique brokers closely, or during all. In those states, a attorney competence legally sell a donated anatomy or a parts, such as heads and arms, so prolonged as a stays are not dictated for transplantation. Only 10 states yield any oversight. Just a handful need chartering or disclosure.

As a result, donors and their families are left to rest on a good faith of a people who run a programs, pronounced late anatomy highbrow William Burkel, who supervised Rathburn during a University of Michigan when they both worked there in a 1980s.

“Because a laws change so many from state to state,” Burkel said, “there is a lot of event for people like Mr. Rathburn to do it yet any arrange of oversight.”

Rathburn’s purported victims enclosed not usually donors and their families yet also a doctors, dentists and other health caring workers who acquired tools from him.

Steve Schomisch, who leads surgical training during Case Western Reserve School of Medicine in Cleveland, schooled recently how unregulated a attention can be. Federal authorities told him that a conduct Rathburn granted to sight Case Western neurosurgeons in 2013 was among a series of physique tools that could not be traced to a donor, lifting questions about a donation’s legitimacy.

“We felt betrayed,” Schomisch said. “Then we said, ‘What can we do to make certain this doesn’t occur again?’”

Schomisch shaped a university cabinet to investigate a approach a attention reserve physique parts; a row found small slip and few rules. Today, Case Western leases usually from a handful of pre-screened brokers that follow standards determined by a American Association of Tissue Banks, a inhabitant accrediting organization.

“It’s such a formidable preference either to donate,” Schomisch pronounced of people who bequest their bodies. “I consider we only assume that by donating, you’re doing something good. But people like Art Rathburn taint that.”


Rathburn was hired in 1984 by a University of Michigan physique concession program, that uses cadavers for anatomy classes and research. He was 30 years aged with a village college grade and a work ethic that endeared him to better-educated colleagues.

“He had a glamour about him,” pronounced former administrator Stuart Baggaley.

Rathburn arrived during a vicious time. University repository uncover that Rathburn helped a module miscarry from complaints by donor families about bad patron service.

“He was only energetic, doing something all of a time,” pronounced Burkel, who led a module during those years. “He had a lot of ideas.”

One deserved announcement in a systematic biography and a patent: “A State-of-the-Art Embalming and Autopsy Station,” a device that betrothed safer and easier credentials of passed bodies.

In 1988, Rathburn was prominently featured in a monthly Ann Arbor Observer newspaper. He expounded on a stress of cadavers in a classroom and told a dainty story about his entrance into a business – a crony gamble him $10 he wouldn’t fill out a wake home pursuit application. He did. In a sketch concomitant a story, Rathburn wears a tie, lab cloak and extended smile.

Two years later, however, Rathburn left a school, annals show, following vague allegations of misconduct. He performed a probity sequence exclusive recover of his crew records. But recently, dual people with approach believe disclosed a purported transgression: Rathburn mishandled a donor ashes, a principal impiety in a wake industry.

With that information safeguarded from open view, Rathburn set out in a early 1990s to sell physique parts.

One chairman Rathburn tender was Ed Eichenlaub, afterwards a doctor’s partner in Pittsburgh who began operative with him to supply physique tools for investigate and surgical seminars.

“I would call adult Art and say, ‘I need half a dozen tellurian heads,’” he said. Later, Eichenlaub said, he worked for Rathburn doing physique tools during medical seminars in New Orleans, San Francisco and Chicago.

“I won’t distortion to you. It was creepy,” pronounced Eichenlaub. “You arrive during this place and there is this outrageous ice chest and we open it and there are a dozen heads. They’re wrapped up, yet it takes a special chairman to do this.”


One reason entrepreneurs like Rathburn can equivocate inspection is a patchwork of state laws relating to a sale of physique parts. Only 10 states yield suggestive oversight, and roughly all of them do it differently.

For example, Virginia and Florida regulators need to give lay accede before a attorney competence move physique tools into a state for investigate or training. In Oklahoma and Oregon, regulators do not need before capitulation to boat particular physique parts, yet they do check brokers frequently and need difficult record-keeping.

In dual of a 10 states, a laws do not seem to be a high priority. In New Jersey, an central said, a 2008 law restricting a business to nonprofits and requiring brokers to register with health authorities hasn’t been implemented, since a legislature unsuccessful to sanction funds. In Maine, a state orator pronounced that nonetheless a law requires brokers to be registered, officials haven’t worried to emanate manners since no one has ever practical for a permit.

Perhaps no group in America imposes tighter controls on physique brokers than a New York state health department. New York requires licenses, inspections and annual statistical reports – for any broker, even those not formed in a state, that ships physique tools to business in New York. State health officials transport around a nation to check brokers.

Still, conjunction New York’s laws nor a regulators were adequate to stop Rathburn, according to a hearing of probity papers and state health annals performed underneath open-records laws.

In 2004, a New York examiner trafficked to Rathburn’s room in Detroit. Though Rathburn was told of a revisit a week in advance, a examiner still found critical deficiencies – flaws that denote how physique tools can enter a black hole of burden after being donated, dissected and shipped to customers. Among a problems: Rathburn could not furnish papers explanation that bodies were donated willingly.

“There are no such annals for whole bodies and physique segments perceived for use during a facility,” a news said.

Rathburn, a annals show, contended that remoteness laws and retailer policies prevented him from providing such proof. New York officials pronounced that was no forgive for not provision agree forms.

“Your devise of correction,” inspectors wrote him in 2005, “does not residence a core of this deficiency.”

In 2006, officials told Rathburn he could no longer boat physique tools to New York until he resolved their concerns. In 2007, New York health officials released Rathburn a provisional license, permitting him to resume operations there.

In a matter to Reuters, New York officials pronounced they conducted a “thorough examination.” A New York health central combined that her group did not forewarn Michigan authorities during a time since “such a regulatory group does not exist” in that state. The central did not elaborate on what group that competence be.

The annals uncover that, from 2005 by 2007, Rathburn’s business continued unabated outward New York as he distributed some-more than 200 severed heads.

At slightest one attorney uttered regard during this period. Walter Mitchell, former owners of BioGift, an Oregon physique concession firm, pronounced he stopped provision physique tools to Rathburn after a 2006 incident. A week after shipping dual tellurian torsos to Rathburn in Detroit, Mitchell got a call from a airline that ecstatic them. No one had picked adult a packages during a airport.

“When are we going to come?” an airline worker asked, according to Mitchell. “The coolers are leaking and it smells.” Rathburn eventually picked adult a torsos, Mitchell said.


In a mid-2000s, Rathburn launched an desirous expansion, one that would lead to bankruptcy.

For $1.8 million in 2005, Rathburn’s association bought a wake home and room in Richmond, Virginia. People informed with a understanding pronounced he chose a properties since they were strategically located nearby dual widespread highway exits, a gathering core and a medical school. The area also was on a upswing.

“They were going to move in loads of cadavers to be stored during a room and, as needed, eliminated to a wake home, afterwards to medical training events,” removed former city assemblyman Bill Pantele. “Having invested a lot of years in revitalization of that neighborhood, we thought, ‘This is a bad idea.’”

Faced with village opposition, Rathburn deserted a devise and struggled financially. While his Michigan association grossed roughly $900,000 annually from 2006 to 2008, annals show, debts mounted.

By late 2008, when Rathburn’s association announced bankruptcy, it reported resources of $72,130 and debts of $621,905. It due $210,402 in behind taxes and during slightest $175,000 to companies provision physique parts. In probity records, Rathburn described a Virginia try as “an ill-conceived plan.”

As partial of a failure filing, Rathburn supposing a list of assets. The register enclosed 14 chairs, 10 record cabinets, 91 heads, 18 spines, 6 hips and a duplicate of a Hippocratic Oath. He put a sum marketplace value of a physique tools during $160,900.


Despite a bankruptcy, Rathburn continued to operate. Through 2013, 6 physique brokers shipped him some-more than 800 physique tools value hundreds of thousands of dollars, probity and New York health dialect annals show.

And sovereign authorities came into hit with Rathburn or his employees a dozen times – including 6 limit crossings – from 2010 by 2013.

In 2010 and again in 2011, sovereign law coercion annals show, Rathburn was stopped returning from Canada. Each time, he was carrying 10 tellurian heads.

In 2012, picnic-style coolers containing 8 heads in red glass arrived during a Detroit airport. Border agents confronted Rathburn. Among a lies agents lay Rathburn told them was that a glass wasn’t blood, yet Listerine mouthwash, used to safety specimens.

The purported lies to a sovereign agents seemed to accelerate a hearing of Rathburn, probity annals show, yet no one intervened to hunt his room or stop his business. Seven months later, his complaint alleges, Rathburn sent a anatomy putrescent with Hepatitis B and HIV to a medical gathering in Washington, D.C. No attendees were harmed, nonetheless they would not learn of a intensity risk for years.

In Aug 2013, New York officials legalised a Detroit room once some-more – and again reported problems with Rathburn’s ability to keep correct annals for any physique part. No other movement was taken opposite him during a time. Rathburn continued to acquire bodies for $5,000 and heads for $500 until late 2013.

Among those remains: a head, dual legs and a shoulder from Glorious Pearl Jeffries, according to her daughter, Lachell Jeffries-Hanson. The Chicago-area marriage planner, who died during age 72 of a pulmonary embolism, hoped her concession would teach others, a daughter recalled. The daughter pronounced a FBI told her recently that a concession organisation that took her mother’s physique distributed some of a tools to Rathburn.

“You don’t unequivocally review by everything,” Jeffries-Hanson pronounced of a concession paperwork she signed. “I was distraught.”

In Dec 2013, after scarcely 4 years of investigation, a FBI raided Rathburn’s room and office. Inside, authorities said, agents found “thousands” of physique parts.

“Rathburn stored tellurian heads by stacking them directly on tip of any other yet any protecting barrier,” authorities pronounced in a probity filing.

The FBI began informing subsequent of family with a form letter: “There is zero that we can contend that can make this news easy for you. As a victim, however, we have a right to know a truth…”

“We wish justice,” Jeffries-Hanson said. What troubles her most, she said, is that her mother’s head, that she suspicion had been cremated, was sitting on someone’s shelf. “That’s her face, that’s her brain, that’s her, that’s what done her function.”

Rathburn was arrested in Jan 2016. By then, he told agents, he was homeless and vital out of his van.

Reported by Brian Grow and John Shiffman; Edited by Blake Morrison


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