In what was probably the most gruesome news story of 2014, federal agents raided a warehouse in Phoenix, Arizona, doing business under the name of Biological Resource Center.
Inside the 9,000 square-foot office building, federal agents found what they described as a “human chop shop.” Hundreds of body parts were piled in freezers and shelves; there were buckets full of human heads and other dismembered body parts. Agents even found a cooler full of male genitalia. A training video produced by the company showed, in graphic detail, bodies being dismembered with circular saws and chainsaws.
In what is probably the most horrific detail of this story, the agents also found a large male torso with a small female head sewn onto it in a “Frankenstein manner.” The scene was so disturbing that one agent developed PTSD from what he saw there.
In all, authorities removed 10 tons of human remains, most of which had no identification.
Yet the owner, whose name is — I shit you not — Stephen Gore, wasn’t charged with desecration of a corpse or anything else related to chopping up and selling human bodies.
That’s because what his business was doing was ostensibly legal. Biological Resource Center was a non-transplant human tissue bank, more commonly referred to as a body broker. As long as the deceased, or their next of kin, signs the proper consent forms, and the tissue is tested and found to be free from disease, body brokers can sell any or all of the deceased’s remains to anyone with a valid credit card. An entire, intact cadaver can go for $5,000 and up. When sold by the part (so to speak), a body broker can make many times that amount. (If you want to learn more, Reuters has an excellent series on The Body Trade).
The majority of the buyers are in the medical field: cadavers and individual parts are used by surgeons to practice on, and various tissues are used by researchers to study drugs and diseases. The Department of Defense also uses cadavers (and individual body parts) in its destructive tests. (For a fascinating look at the ways cadavers are used, I highly recommend Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers [affiliate link])
However, if human tissue — which includes anything from a sample of skin cells to an entire cadaver — isn’t meant for transplantation, there are few regulations on the industry. Only 10 states have any regulations on the books at all, and some of them are rarely enforced. As far back as 2004, a federal health advisory panel asked the U.S. government to apply the same strict oversight to the body-parts trade that already governed organ transplantation, but that recommendation was shelved. The closest thing to oversight on the industry is the voluntary accreditation process through the American Association of Tissue Banks, a non-profit that sets standards for the safety and use of human tissue. It is not, however, a regulatory body and has no means for enforcing its standards.
Where Gore ran afoul of the few laws governing this practice was that he forged or altered consent forms and knowingly sold diseased body parts.
In 2015, Gore pled guilty to the charge of “illegal control of an enterprise” and for his plea deal, got one year of jail time, deferred, and four years probation. In addition, he was ordered to pay $121,000 in restitution to the Department of Defense for the body parts it had purchased but could no longer use, since they could be carrying infectious diseases.
In addition, more than 30 relatives of the people who were chopped up and sold sued Gore. They claim he lied to them about what would be done with their loved ones’ bodies, and in some cases, forged or altered consent forms. Gore was found guilty and ordered to pay $58 million to the victims’ families.
But the raid on Gore’s chop shop did more than expose his crimes. It exposed a nationwide racket of similar body brokers.
Dr. Rathburn’s “Warehouse of Horrors”
Authorities were led to Gore’s operation only after busting one of his biggest customers: a body broker in Detroit named Arthur Rathburn.
Starting in 1984, Rathburn had been the coordinator of the University of Michigan’s anatomical donation program, but he left in 1990 for, allegedly, illegally selling parts of those donated bodies. In fact, a year earlier, he had set up his own independent body brokerage, which went bankrupt in 2007.
Undeterred by bankruptcy, from January 2007 until December 2013, Arthur and his wife, Elizabeth, ran International Biological Inc. (IBI) out of a run-down warehouse in Detroit’s east side. IBI purchased bodies from a variety of sources: funeral homes, overseas sellers, and other body brokers — including Biological Resource Center in Phoenix and another by the same name in Chicago. The Rathburns then sold or rented the body parts to researchers and medical facilities.
From the beginning, IBI began sending up red flags. Neighbors who lived near the warehouse reported an awful smell, as well as seeing people coming in with what looked like trash bags. These complaints were never investigated.
Shortly after IBI began doing business, New York State health inspectors reprimanded it twice for failure to provide documentation that the bodies it acquired were, in fact, willingly donated.
Through the course of his business, Rathburn frequently shipped in body parts from all over the world, including some places with even more lax regulations on cadaver trafficking. In 2010, Rathburn was questioned about a shipment of human heads flown in from Canada. Over the next three years, authorities documented five more international human-remains shipments, including one that contained a severed penis.
Some have asked why nothing was done when this man was shipping human body parts into and out of the Detroit Metro Airport. But what he was doing, at least on the surface, is legal. At that point, authorities had no evidence he was breaking any law.
But in 2013, an airport baggage handler spotted a box that appeared to be leaking blood. They alerted the authorities, who found that the fluid was indeed blood. Inside the package was a cooler filled with eight human heads wrapped in trash bags. One of the heads belonged to a man who had died of sepsis and pneumonia.
Since shipping of human remains is more highly regulated than buying and selling them, and the Rathburns did not have the proper paperwork to ship these heads, this bureaucratic infraction finally brought the Rathburns to the FBI’s attention.
When they raided IBI’s warehouse, agents found conditions described as “filthy” and “disgusting.” There were piles of dead insects on the floors, along with puddles of bodily fluids. There were body parts stockpiled in freezers, right next to food. Some of them had thawed and refrozen into one mass. Other human remains — some in a state of decay — were stored in ice chests, and heads were stacked on shelves without anything between them.
They found chainsaws and circular saws used to cut up the bodies — but not sterilized between cadavers.
Altogether, the FBI seized over 1,000 different body parts — including four preserved fetuses — from what was dubbed “the warehouse of horrors.”
Paperwork found in IBI’s office exposed an entire network of illegal human body-part trafficking. The now-infamous Biological Resource Center in Phoenix was one of his many co-conspirators to “illegally collect, harvest, and traffic human remains.” Rathburn had purchased at least 26 human heads from BRC.
In exchange for a sentence of nine months probation, his wife and business partner turned state’s evidence. Elizabeth Rathburn told the investigators that she and her husband would purchase diseased body parts at low rates, then turn around and sell and rent those same body parts to surgical facilities and medical schools, claiming they were disease-free. Records show some of these remains were infected with HIV, hepatitis, meningitis, sepsis, and other diseases, putting researchers’ and health-care workers’ lives at risk.
Then there were the donors’ families, most of whom were too poor to afford funeral services. Like Gore, the Rathburns (who also, coincidentally, ran a mortuary) would lie to them about how the remains would be used, or outright forge consent forms. The families were promised that once the “tissue” had been removed for research, they would receive the rest of their loved ones’ cremains. However, often there was nothing left after Rathburn had sold off every part of the body, so loved ones would instead receive “something else.” What — or who — that “something else” might be is still unknown.
Shockingly, while Rathburn was awaiting trial, he held a “going out of business” sale, selling off the coolers, freezers, and other items from the warehouse of horrors. Reporters were stunned that people would purchase them, but indeed, he sold quite a few.
When he was taken into custody in 2016, the former Grosse Pointe Park resident, who had made some $13 million from selling human body parts, was homeless and living in his van.
In 2018, Rathburn was convicted of wire fraud and illegally transporting hazardous materials; he was sentenced to nine years in prison. He showed no remorse at his sentencing, instead blaming the brokers who provided him with the diseased remains.
Rathburn’s “warehouse of horrors” didn’t make much of a media impact beyond Detroit, but in the wake of the resulting raid on Gore’s “chop shop” in 2014, there has been some movement to regulate body brokers. In 2017, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill into law that requires body brokers to be licensed and regularly inspected, to follow a set of standards, and to hire a medical doctor to supervise company practices. However, the state’s Department of Health didn’t start enforcing the law until 2020, and it’s likely that the Covid-19 outbreak has hampered, if not stopped, enforcement.
There was some movement on the federal level as well. In March of 2019, Reps. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), and Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.), introduced the Consensual Donation and Research Integrity Act, which would create a registration and tracking system for bodies and body parts donated for research and guarantees their “respectful disposition.” It was referred to the House Subcommittee on Health, where, as of this writing, it remains.