Feature stories, read aloud: Download the Audm app for your iPhone.
In February of 2012, two duct-taped camping coolers—the kind you might take on a picnic—arrived at Delta Cargo, a freight-shipping warehouse on the northeast side of Detroit Metro airport. The airline's ground crew tossed the coolers onto a pallet in a climate-controlled storage area. But the tape split, and a reddish liquid splattered out. Because the shipment was said to contain "five human heads with necks, two torsos, and one whole body," it soon proved to be an expensive leak, requiring extensive biohazard remediation.
Not long after, a special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation named Paul Micah Johnson arrived to inspect the cargo with Elizabeth Harton, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) quarantine officer. It seemed improbable that an entire body could fit inside two picnic coolers, so they pried open the lids. Inside were eight human heads, wrapped in trash bags and sitting in what appeared to be pools of blood. Eight faces, no names.
The heads had been shipped by International Biological, Inc., a Detroit business owned by Arthur Rathburn. Rathburn, now 63, a burly, bearded man, founded IBI in 1989 to "provide medical seminars and training specimens to the medical profession." He once told federal officials in New York that he had a "Ph.D. in biological sciences and forensics." By 2012, when the coolers arrived at Delta Cargo, Rathburn was living with his wife on a quiet street in Grosse Pointe Park. A Beware of Dog sign hung on a fence across their driveway. They kept a small office nearby, and, out past the Chrysler assembly plant, the company stored cadavers in a one-story brick warehouse located on a trash-strewn roadway. Rathburn had originally shipped the eight heads to Tel Aviv, and they appeared to be making their return voyage to Detroit.
At least, that's according to an FBI search-warrant affidavit and the resulting charges brought by federal prosecutors against Rathburn, who disputes those charges. Rathburn stands accused of nine counts of wire fraud, for telling his clients that the body parts being shipped were not infected with disease-causing organisms; one count of violating Department of Transportation regulations governing the transport of hazardous material; and three counts of making false statements to federal agents about these shipments. Rathburn did not respond to multiple requests for interviews, though he is pleading not guilty. He has also contested some of the government's factual claims in the search-warrant affidavit. (The FBI did not respond to multiple interview requests.)
The United States is an excellent place to be in the body business. By one 2007 estimate, 20,000 human bodies are donated here annually. These donations come about directly. You can bequeath your body to anatomical gift programs operated by many universities, and you may become the "first patient" a surgeon operates on. Donations can also be arranged after death, through a network of independent firms, although in such cases your family may have only a vague notion of where your body will end up. Brokers do business with other brokers, who work with funeral homes and crematoriums that, in turn, get referrals from hospice centers—all of which means that, invariably, some donated remains end up dismembered, beheaded, and shipped around the world for profit.
You cannot legally sell a dead body—yours or anyone else's. These brokers, instead, turn a profit off a corpse by charging for the service, not the actual goods. Their fees cover the "preparation" of cadaveric material as well as the "matching" and "placing" of remains. These re-allocation fees were once designed simply to cover the cost of transporting remains to and from medical schools. Today, a whole human cadaver can be broken down and parted out for as much as $100,000. It is shocking to learn how little federal oversight there is for these so-called non-transplant anatomical donations. Body parts are funneled to a wide range of researchers—anesthesiologists learning how to perform epidurals and sonograms; private firms training customers how to install a dental implant; pharmaceutical companies; scientists studying transcranial direct stimulation; engineers who still test crashes on real flesh and bone even as cars become autonomously controlled. Michel Anteby, a professor of organizational behavior at Boston University, conducted several studies on the industry. Small businesses have come to dominate the trade over the last 15 years, he says, and the rapid influx of entrepreneurial ventures transformed traditional anatomical exchanges into a bustling billion-dollar marketplace. "In some ways, it crystallizes American business and capitalism," he says. "I know of no other country where you have a legal trade in human cadavers."
In some respects, the arrival of eight heads in Detroit was just another routine shipment. Employees working the counter at Delta Cargo will tell you that human remains are an everyday part of the cargo stream. (One Delta employee I spoke with gave me the impression Rathburn was a genial guy, and, as if to underscore the banality of what he had been doing, she said, "We ship dogs too.") Still, the circumstances surrounding the shipment were hardly routine. A number of inconsistencies—or, as authorities have alleged, deliberately falsified statements—placed Rathburn and two of his suppliers under legal scrutiny, prompting a sprawling investigation into what prosecutors described as "the illegal dealings of an ostensibly legitimate business." These charges pulled back the veil that obscures a flourishing and still-mysterious trade, where things that look highly improper are sometimes allowed. Indeed, for all the unseemly things Rathburn is accused of, these everyday transactions in human flesh are legal. Trading in human remains raises moral and emotional questions, but it has taken more than five years to bring this case to trial, and no systemic reforms have been enacted. The industry would remain intact, and inevitably there would be more miseries to come.
Rathburn has raised eyebrows before. In 1990, he left the University of Michigan, where he had worked as a morgue attendant, under suspicious circumstances, as Annie Cheney recounts in her book Body Brokers: Inside America's Underground Trade in Human Remains. In the late 1990s, the Los Angeles Times reported that International Biological, Inc., transported cadavers to the ballroom of the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles for a pain-management workshop. More recently, the business attracted notice for allegedly misleading regulators about some of their shipments. According to the indictment, the FBI learned that, from 2010 to 2013, the Rathburns sent $13,000 in heads and necks to a periodontology conference at the Hyatt Regency in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and shipped materials to a bone-grafting seminar hosted by the California Implant Institute; the remains in both shipments had tested positive for hepatitis B—meaning they had been transported illegally. If the shipment to Israel was any indication, IBI lived up to its name and had begun exporting remains beyond the U.S.
Three weeks after the shipment of eight heads arrived, Rathburn turned up at the Detroit airport, intent, the FBI later claimed, on cleaning up and retrieving his coolers. But he was denied access, in part because he lacked the necessary protective gear. Rathburn, the government said in its search-warrant affidavit, told federal inspectors that he’d packaged the heads himself, that they were all embalmed, and that the liquid in the coolers was Listerine, as a preservative—a claim that the FBI says Rathburn knew was false. (Rathburn has since argued in court that the FBI has not provided evidence that these statements were false.) By the time the government filed charges, investigators had had the liquid tested three times, and each test came back positive for blood.
A few pieces of information were missing from the shipment in Detroit. Initially, no death certificates were included for the eight donors, and, on documents submitted with the shipment, the names had been blacked out, replaced with numbers—which an expert who spoke with the FBI said, while technically not illegal, would be as suspicious as scrubbing out your name and birth date on your driver’s license. The CDC emailed a request for the original documents, and, later that same day, a fax arrived from Donald Greene II, one of Rathburn’s suppliers, who, with his father, Donald Greene Sr., ran what’s known as a willed-body donor program called the Biological Resource Center, which was headquartered near Chicago. Greene later said the heads were “fresh, frozen, and never embalmed,” contradicting Rathburn, who had told the CDC that the heads were embalmed and not frozen. Moreover, the fax said, the death certificates had been redacted because federal law required that the Biological Resource Center protect its donors’ privacy. “We ... strictly adhere to federal regulations (45CFR Part 46) that protect Confidentiality of both our donors and the recipients or research tissues,” the fax read. But those federal regulations apply only to the living; a deceased person is not considered a human research subject. In denying federal authorities access to the death certificates, the CDC believed, these brokers had something to hide. The FBI decided to move in.
In the spring of 2012, Johnson, the lead FBI investigator, set up surveillance. He watched as International Biological, Inc. vans drove to a crematorium that the Greenes operated in the suburbs of Chicago and returned to Rathburn’s Detroit warehouse with bags and coolers, according to an affidavit Johnson prepared. The FBI claimed it had turned up one death certificate that Rathburn had signed, donating a Michigan man’s body to a non-existent entity, the IB Tissue Bank, which had the same address as Rathburn’s own business (IBI). In attempting to build a case for a search warrant, Johnson cited two people who told the FBI they worked at IBI—“confidential human sources,” Johnson called them—one of whom told him Rathburn dumped biological waste down the drain. A former employee claimed that Rathburn pawned off gold he removed from the teeth of donated cadavers. (Rathburn later said in court that he did not need family permission to remove the gold.) Two unnamed sources told the FBI that Rathburn had instructed them to evade the CDC. An earlier CDC inspection of an IBI shipment had turned up a severed penis with no documentation, which the FBI implied might be linked to an unsolved case of the criminal mutilation of a donor in Arizona. According to experts the FBI interviewed, the penis served no practical purpose in research. (Rathburn has contested the accuracy of many of the details from the FBI's search warrant in court.)
In the course of his investigation, the FBI’s Johnson discovered evidence of what would become the meat of the indictment. In October of 2012, the Rathburns shipped $55,225.83 worth of body parts, including remains that had tested positive for HIV and hepatitis B, to the American Society of Anesthesiologists for a series of cadaver workshops at the group's annual meeting in Washington, D.C. What appeared to be business as usual was, the FBI came to believe, part of a criminal enterprise that allegedly involved buying infected bodies at a discount, presenting the bodies as non-infected, and transporting this infected property across state lines, all while lying to authorities to cover it up.
(In legal motions designed to exclude evidence in the government's case, Rathburn's lawyers called a number of these statements "unsubstantiated." Some, including statements from purported former IBI employees, they have called uncorroborated; others they have yet to confirm or deny. Regarding the penis, Rathburn has argued that the FBI's allegations are unproven and completely "speculative.")
In December of 2013, a year after the anesthesiologists' conference, with a light snow dusting the ground in Detroit, authorities dressed in hazmat suits set up blue tents outside Rathburn's brick warehouse. Inside, agents sorted through so many dead bodies that the search resembled a dry run for a mass casualty like a shooting or a terrorist attack, according to a Detroit medical examiner who assisted with the investigation. The investigators turned up chainsaws, band saws, and reciprocating saws. They found heads stacked on top of each other, with frozen blood and bodily fluids pooled beneath, in the warehouse's freezers, in violation of industry sanitation protocols, according to the indictment; federal prosecutors are alleging that Rathburn defrauded his clients by letting them believe he was following proper protocol. Despite the totes of body parts seized during the raid, more than two years would pass before the Rathburns were indicted. Investigators kept searching, but where federal authorities saw evidence of criminal wrongdoing, Rathburn's lawyers insisted, in legal filings made last year, he'd been guilty of little more than unwittingly repeating paperwork errors made by his suppliers.
For hundreds of years, the driving force behind body-snatching was the need for an adequate, uninterrupted supply of specimens for dissection and study. There has also been periodic public outcry: In 1765, angry mobs in Philadelphia set off to find medical practitioners and their pupils who'd dug up graves when no one was looking. Another riot followed in New York two decades later. But the hands-on study of human anatomy is foundational to modern medicine. By the early 20th century, laws made it so that criminals, psychiatric patients, and those left unclaimed or unidentified at morgues could be used for research. Since then, there’s been a momentous shift: Medical schools have established willed-body programs, most of which require that a cadaver used i research must come from a consenting donor or their next-of-kin:
The problem is that state laws remain vague. As Alta Charo, the Warren P. Knowles professor of law at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, argued, writing about tissue donation in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2006: "Our tissue may be scattered. Our laws ought not to be." Unlike organs for transplants, which are closely regulated by the federal government's Health Resources & Services Administration, cadavers are regulated in a more patchwork manner. But there is no simple fix, Charo says; it's not simply a matter of extending the rights of live research subjects. "In general," Charo told me in an email, "it is probably wise that we do not treat cadavers or tissues of dead people as subjects of research regulations that have been developed to protect living people who are in experiments." Doing so, Charo says, would hamper research at tissue banks and at archeological digs dating back centuries.
Without anatomical donations, many types of biomedical research would grind to a halt. But the only coherent set of regulations treats cadavers, and their constituent parts, as little more than property, almost like a broken appliance to be parted out and sold for scrap. For years, brokers have cut up and trafficked bodies from boxy industrial warehouses that functioned like salvage yards. So long as brokers disposed of biomedical waste in ways that did not threaten public health, they had operated within the confines of the law. It is even possible, and entirely legal, to transport bodies containing infectious disease, but doing so requires hermetically sealed containers. And so a banged-up cooler, leaking a pool of potential blood-borne pathogens, had prompted the records request that spawned the investigation.
The Biological Resource Center of Illinois kept a fifth-floor office located above the Rosemont Village Hall and the local police department, not far from Chicago's O'Hare airport. The company's literature offered an attractive package, boasting its own funeral staff that promised to cremate and return a donor's remains at no cost within 30 days. File cabinets at its offices were filled with thank-you notes, and donors could even opt to have their name, or their loved one's name, engraved on a stone at a memorial garden. "No tissue is sent elsewhere for research," its website said; its mission included a "respect for our donors and to the altruistic values they hold dear when they make the unselfish decision to donate their body to science." In late 2013, when Linda Hayes sought a place in Chicago to donate her husband Tom's body, the Biological Resource Center looked like a fitting, safe choice.
Linda and Tom met in high school in the 1970s, and settled down in the suburbs of Chicago. Tom had Type 1 diabetes, and it took a toll on his body. He lucked into a kidney transplant, but subsequent bloodwork required him to take so much time off from work that he lost his job and never found work again. (Linda explains that this was prior to the Americans With Disabilities Act.) As Linda remembers it, her husband was in bad shape the last few years of his life. At 56, he was living with heart disease and had survived an amputation and several strokes. Tom sometimes felt bad about what he'd been unable to accomplish in life, but he also felt immensely fortunate to have received two kidney transplants and a pancreas. When the couple agreed, before his death, to donate his body to science, Linda said the decision seemed to give him a renewed sense of purpose. "Maybe it would help somebody down the road," he told her.
In January of 2015, just over a year after the FBI raided Rathburn's facilities in Detroit, authorities executed a search warrant at the Biological Resource Center office and a cinder-block crematorium it operated. The FBI had been investigating possible crimes of defrauding donors and recipients and making false statements to government authorities. Making its case for the search warrant, the FBI speculated that the center had "harvested" and cut up cadavers prior to serology testing, which might have raised the risk of spreading blood-borne diseases; these risks were compounded, the FBI claimed, because employees used Milwaukee Sawzalls rather than oscillating autopsy saws, which are more expensive but less prone to sending bone particles and disease-causing organisms into the air. The lawyer representing the Biological Resource Center's owners, Donald Greene II and Donald Greene Sr., initially told reporters that the employees of the company had been following industry protocol: "These were experienced people. They had the proper training, manuals, everything," he said. Still, ahead of the search, the FBI's investigation had turned up paperwork, including an original death certificate for a body labelled BRC-1006024. It turned out to be one of the eight "fresh, never frozen" heads that Greene allegedly sold to Rathburn for $500. The cause of death on the original donor paperwork was not Parkinson's disease, as the shipping documents later suggested. Rather, the donor had apparently died because of sepsis, which raised a far more troubling question: Were these brokers knowingly shipping diseased bodies around the world? (No charges have been filed against the Greenes.)
Linda Hayes learned of the raid the morning of January 14th, 2015. She'd gone over to her oldest daughter's house to help take care of her kids when she saw a report on WGN-TV. The news report implied that bodies were ending up on the black market. She remembers saying something like, "That's the same place I donated dad." Linda called the state attorney general's office, but a woman there said she didn't know anything. Eventually, a special victims' advocate at the FBI filled Hayes in: Her husband's body had been found in Detroit, minus the head and one arm.
By then, the Biological Resource Center had returned what it claimed were Tom's cremated remains, and she'd spread his ashes at Wrigley Field and at a lake the couple used to visit in Wisconsin. She began to wonder if those flecks of bone even belonged to her husband. After Tom's death, it had taken her "months and months and months," as she would tell people, "to get out of that bog." Had her decision to sign the paperwork, legally making the donation, been clouded by grief? Hayes wasn't the only one in her family who had gone this route: Her sister-in-law donated her husband's body to the Biological Resource Center as well. In a search-warrant application Johnson prepared, the FBI claims that people who never consented to donations nonetheless ended up in the center's possession. According to the FBI, one body, only authorized for use by not-for-profit entities within the U.S., appeared to have been sold twice, and shipped overseas. (In making the case for the search warrant, the FBI said that, apart from the suspected crimes, the Greenes were operating in a way that had the appearance of selling bodies for profit.)
Hayes, her relatives, and a dozen others filed civil suits against the Greenes and several related entities seeking monetary damages for emotional distress. No one has been criminally charged, and a man who identified himself as Don Greene recently answered a call to a phone number associated with his cremation business, but referred all questions to his lawyer. That lawyer, Bob Stephenson, has previously said that he expects the Greenes to be cleared of all wrongdoing, telling me, "The Illinois Anatomical Gift Act provides our clients and other people who participate in the anatomical gift industry with complete immunity from civil and criminal liability and provides them with a mandatory presumption of good faith."
Hayes said she did not bring the case for financial gain. Rather, she wanted to hold those "greedy bastards" accountable. Tom never had a fair shake in life, she said, and it was unfathomable to her that someone would steal his parting gift, the one thing that had afforded him a sense of greater purpose. While no criminal charges have been filed, the truth of her claims will be tested in her civil case. "I'm not doing this for money," she told me in 2015. "He thought this was going to be his contribution. And then he got screwed out of that."
Over a year after Arthur Rathburn's warehouse was raided by the FBI, he was reportedly living out of his van. In early 2016, the Detroit Free Press reported that witnesses in the case had been receiving unwanted phone calls, and, in March of 2016—not long after Rathburn went free on $10,000 bail on the condition he avoid contacting anyone involved in the case—he slipped a stuffed animal, a hat, and a birthday card into a box his son delivered to Elizabeth, his estranged wife and former business partner. She told a judge that she felt the card was "weird and disjointed" (she wasn't sure if it was threatening), and the judge sent Rathburn to federal prison. He's now spent a year and a half awaiting a trial scheduled to begin in January of 2018. Elizabeth Rathburn, who admitted to shipping a body that had tested positive for HIV and hepatitis B to anesthesiologists in 2012, pleaded guilty to a single charge of fraud and is expected to be a key witness in the government's case against Rathburn. (Federal prosecutors declined to comment.)
Six years after the initial incident, many questions remain—first among them, where does legal brokerage end and malfeasance begin? While the FBI search warrant alludes to a vast gray market, authorities were never actually pursuing these cases to crack down on such a market, and Rathburn has argued in court that the FBI has yet to prove such a market really exists. All of the criminal charges against Rathburn concern the living and have little to do with desecrating a corpse or reneging on the dying wishes of a donor. Had a cooler with infected heads not started leaking that day in Detroit, it's unlikely there would have been any real grounds for prosecution. It's unclear who, if anyone, will—or should—be held liable. (Stephen Gore, the broker who the FBI implies could have supplied Rathburn with a severed penis, received a one-year suspended sentence after pleading guilty to charges stemming from a separate investigation in Phoenix. Gore has called the work of body brokerage "a labor of love" but, through his lawyer, he said he wanted "nothing more to do with it.") Even if these now-shuttered body brokers were outliers, there is little to prevent future brokers from reaping profits off the illicit shipping of dismembered arms, legs, and heads.
In 2012, as the FBI began preparing its case against the Rathburns, the International Federation of Associations of Anatomists proposed regulations that read, in part, "If bodies, body parts, or plastinated specimens are to be supplied to other institutions for educational or research purposes this may not yield commercial gain." The stipulation—basically, transform these commodities back into gifts—raised questions about whose commercial gain would be restricted. Even if you cannot sell a body, or any part of a deceased person, donations arrive with strings attached. A funeral can cost upwards of $6,000, so a donation mitigates the costs of a body's disposal. Philip Guyett, who wrote a book on the subject while serving an eight-year sentence for charges related to selling body parts, summarizes this thinking as such: "People will be happy to give you their body after death, also their moms, dads, uncle if they can get a free cremation out of it."
Still, donors often pledge their bodies as an altruistic act, and framing the debate around compensation in legal terms misses the emotional core of the story, the heartfelt quest to extend the dignity of dying to those who are now deceased. Many of these bodies belonged to people intent on advancing scientific and medical research. Perhaps donors should be able to consent to having others make money off their dead bodies, so long as that decision is fully informed. As it stands now, there are precious few deterrents that keep entrepreneurial ventures from engaging in predatory practices that target less educated or less affluent donors. Michel Anteby, the BU professor, says that the commercial exchange fuels demand for a product that's not supposed to be a product, creating a warped system where bodies can effectively be sold to the highest bidder. That, in turn, means pharmaceutical firms, automakers—anyone, really—can outsource the ethical and legal quandaries to middlemen, who have financial incentives. No matter how idealistic a donor, death quickly devolves from the spiritual to the physical. By turning a profit, body brokers reveal a side of death few of us want to see.
A version of this story originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of Pacific Standard.