A Body Broker Took Bodies Donated To Science, Dismembered Them, And Sold The Body Parts Illegally

If you've ever wondered what happens to bodies donated to science, the answer can be a grisly tale. Nobly donated bodies are cut up, and the parts used for research are distributed to various organizations. But there are times where the body broker black market rears its ugly head. Arthur Rathburn was one such body broker. Along with his wife he not only sold body parts to public organizations through questionable means, but also HIV-diseased body parts. Chainsaws, warehouses of bodies, leaky bloody camper coolers, and even body parts preserved in mouthwash were the norm in the Rathburns' business model for decades.

Body brokers sound like something out of a science fiction movie, but they they are a very real thing in today's world. When families find it impossible to afford a funeral or after-death wishes for a loved one. Because of this, they can sometimes sell or offer the bodies of their dead to "body brokers." Often, brokers have deals with funeral homes, and will then take the bodies and sell various body parts and organs to research organizations and groups, then return the ashes of the rest of the body to the family for disposal. Sometimes, these brokers will even sell or rent parts of the bodies to individuals for the right price. Possibly the most terrifying part of all this is that it's pretty much legal. What's more is there's a huge market for it because of a lack of body donations and a huge number of organizations needing bodies for research. One body broker firm managed earn at least 12 million dollars over three years of selling human tissue to buyers. It's a barely regulated practice, and bodies are often used under...less than scrupulous circumstances. 

Read this grisly tale at your own risk, but take solace in the notion that these two are behind bars, even if there are many more black market body brokers out there.

  • He Distributed Body Parts Infected With HIV And Told No One

    He Distributed Body Parts Infected With HIV And Told No One
    Photo: AirmanMagazine / flickr / CC-BY-NC 2.0

    As a black market, entrepreneurial, body-brokering team, Arthur and Elizabeth Rathburn were not above deliberately putting their clients in harm's way. In 2012, Elizabeth Rathburn took a trip to an anesthesiology conference, to meet with the American Association of Anesthesiologists in Washington, D.C. She offered them body parts, including heads, that could be used for medical training exercises, at a very good price of only around 55,000 dollars. Of course, they bought the body parts. 

    Only after her arrest and during her guilty plea did Elizabeth give some rather horrifying information: the body parts were from a person infected with HIV. Arthur had known about this, and had sent the body parts along without a word to any of the clients, and lied about the bodies being clean. Elizabeth also admitted they had knowingly sold body parts infected with AIDs and Hepatitis B, thereby putting countless doctors, nurses, and medical students at risk. 

  • He Used A Chainsaw To Dismember Bodies

    One horrifying detail on how Rathburn treated the bodies is to how he sectioned them up for sale. Not only is it gruesome to think that he was cutting up the bodies of people who were supposedly donated to science, but he did it with non-sterile, sometimes non-medical equipment. In his 2016 Grand Jury indictment, Arthur Rathburn was accused of using a reciprocating saw, a bone saw, and even a chainsaw to dismember bodies without any sterile conditions. In fact, when his facility was raided, it was found that the majority of the bodies looked to have been cut up with a chainsaw. This allowed cross-contamination of the different corpses, including those which had diseases, potentially putting health care workers and buyers of the body parts at risk.

  • He Sold The Genitals Of Dead People

    He Sold The Genitals Of Dead People
    Photo: AlishaV / Flickr/Creative Commons

    The Rathburns were not shy about the prospect of selling any parts of the bodies. In general, organs, limbs, or even bones would be sold, but the Rathburns would go farther than that. They were willing to sell pretty much any body parts they could, including genitalia. Between 2010 and 2013, there is record of Arthur selling a severed penis across state lines, likely removed in unsanitary conditions. What eventually became of this penis is still a mystery. It is legal to rent body parts in most states. So, even individuals who just wanted a human body part for their private collection, or perhaps for more nefarious purposes, could purchase a dead person's body, and the family who donated would never know. 

  • He Stored Human Heads In A Disease-Riddled Warehouse

    He Stored Human Heads In A Disease-Riddled Warehouse
    Photo: WXYZ-TV Detroit | Channel 7 / YouTube

    Another reason Arthur and Elizabeth were eventually caught had to do with the way they were storing the bodies. Neighbors to the warehouse where the couple operated often said they could smell a strange odor coming from the area. They would see bags brought in, like trash bags, that wouldn't come back out. It was only when the FBI finally raided that it became apparent these were all related to the trafficking of dead bodies. 

    When the FBI came to the warehouse, they recorded a horrifying scene. There were shelves, where human heads were stacked, on on top of the other, without and barriers. There were whole bodies kept in barely-refrigerated condition, and thawed in the open air or with garden hoses. Infected specimens were stored with non-infected specimens, and some body parts were even just found in leaky camping coolers stained with blood. It was like a scene from a slaughterhouse, and was anything but safe or sanitary. In the end, more than 1,000 body parts were seized from the freezers.

    In January 2018, one FBI agent described the scene they came across. "Some of the freezers had heads and torsos, some had arms and legs. Many were frozen together in flesh-on-flesh chunks." 

  • He Was Caught Trying To Transport Body Parts Through The Airport

    He Was Caught Trying To Transport Body Parts Through The Airport
    Photo: angrywayne / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    Rathburn was also caught illegally trying to transport the remains. When transporting human body parts, special permitting and special containment are required, but the Rathburns did not use any of this. Instead, they transported body parts on public commercial flights!

    In one case, an airport worker helping with Delta Cargo noticed that a package was dripping, and that the substance leaking appeared to be blood. When the package was inspected, it was found to contain several severed human heads. The Rathburn's company had shipped eight human heads, including one from a person who had died from sepsis and aspiration pneumonia. It was all in a trash bag within a camping cooler. This was incredibly illegal, and lead the FBI to investigate the couple. 

  • He Was A Body Brokering Entrepreneur Working On The Black Market

    He Was A Body Brokering Entrepreneur Working On The Black Market
    Photo: WXYZ-TV Detroit | Channel 7 / YouTube

    Unfortunately, because the body brokering trade is so shoddily regulated or legislated, it's easy for many people to broker bodies illegally. 

    Rathburn lived in the Detroit suburb of Grosse Point Park, in a state where selling body parts has nearly no regulations at all. He originally studied at the University of Michigan, working in a morgue and often using donated bodies for his research. Eventually he left the college after allegations of misconduct. He became a body broker in 1989. He worked with some organizations such as the Biological Resource Center, which was later investigated for shady practices, but much of the time he worked on his own. He would find and sell body parts from funeral homes, or even overseas, then import them, cut them up, and sell them to whoever would pay. It didn't matter who, and even if people had donated their loved ones' bodies to science, Rathburn would sell or rent them to whoever he saw fit.