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Detroit Body Broker Accused of Selling Diseased Parts, Storing Fetuses

— January 5, 2018

Detroit Body Broker Accused of Selling Diseased Parts, Storing Fetuses

FBI agents found four fetuses set in brown liquid containing human brain tissue during a December 2013 raid of Arthur Rathburn’s Detroit area warehouse.  The fetuses appeared to be in their second trimester.  It was unclear to investigators how the property owner obtained the fetuses or whether he had been selling them.

Rathburn, formerly a body broker, is set to stand trial for his stash this month.  He is also being charged with defrauding customers by selling them human remains infected with disease.  Selling corpses and body parts is legal in the United States and is actually a multimillion-dollar industry.  Body brokers acquire cadavers donated to science, dismember them and sell the parts.  It is against the law, however, to sell fetal tissue like what Rathburn had in storage.

A photograph obtained in the course of the investigation showed an agent fully dressed in hazmat gear inside Rathburn’s warehouse using forceps to remove the fetuses from the liquid containers, while another image shows them being placed on a towel.

Detroit Body Broker Accused of Selling Diseased Parts, Storing Fetuses
Image Courtesy of Reuters

U.S. Representative Marsha Blackburn (D-Tennessee) called for a review of body broker facility regulations following a review of the footage.  The chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Representative Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia), called the findings “an insult to human dignity” and demanded that body part sellers be “held accountable” for their twisted money-making methods.  Also found in Rathburn’s warehouse, face up in a plastic cooler, were rotting human heads.

Rathburn’s wife, Elizabeth Rathburn, who is believed to have assisted her husband with his underground business, previously pleaded guilty to wire fraud as part of a plea deal.  Rathburn, of Grosse Pointe Park, was ordered to be held in federal custody pending trial.  He was transferred to the Wayne County Jail on Nov. 30.

Evidence in the U.S. Attorney’s Office case against Rathburn includes numerous dissected human body parts, some of them infected with sepsis bacteria and HIV, which are currently being stored in an FBI freezer; as well as evidence supporting claims Rathburn shipped body parts preserved in mouthwash, deceived grieving families hoping to obtain their dead loved ones’ remains, and illegally discarded scraps of human flesh, bones and other remains in the municipal sewer system exposing area residences to harmful diseases and chemicals.

The discoveries at the Rathburn facility were part of a Reuters series on abuses and inappropriate trading of human remains.  In one case, a media journalist bought two human heads and a cervical spine from a Tennessee broker called Restore Life U.S.A.  With minimal correspondence, the reporter was able to obtain the body parts for $900 plus shipping.  Blackburn was disturbed by this.  Restore Life owner James Byrd responded by indicating his company has “invited her to tour our facility and to review the policy and procedures we have in place.”

The parts acquired by body brokers are typically used for medical research purposes, science, and education.  In most states, including Michigan, public health authorities are not required to regularly inspect body broker facilities.  Body brokers most commonly obtain their corpses and parts from the poor, who donate the remains in exchange for free cremation of the unused parts.


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