Body-Parts Broker Stored Human Parts in Paint Cans, Beer Coolers, and Tupperware

January 6, 2018 Updated: January 6, 2018    

Grisly testimony was heard in court on Friday, as a federal agent described the scene investigators saw when they entered Arthur Rathburn’s warehouse in December 2013 as littered with dead flies, dog bowls, and human remains.

The body-parts broker’s trial opened in a Detroit courtroom on Jan. 5, 2018, and according to Fox, FBI agent Leslie Larsen also spoke of finding human body parts in paint cans, beer, coolers and Tupperware containers.

The graphic description came during the opening day in the federal trial of businessman Arthur Rathburn, who sold or leased donated body parts, including human heads, to medical researchers for two decades.

The buying and selling of body parts for research and education is legal under U.S. law, but the industry is unregulated. Current codes only cover body parts intended for transplant, such as hearts and livers.

Rathburn, however, is charged with defrauding customers by selling them body parts infected with hepatitis and HIV and lying to federal agents about shipments.

During opening statements, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Neal told jurors that human remains were stored so haphazardly that Rathburn needed a crowbar to separate frozen parts.

When Larson testified, she told that during the 2013 search of Rathburn’s warehouse, officials found a filthy scene, with no running water or heat.

“Body parts were out in the open, in coolers,” Larson said. Some of the freezers contained body parts that were frozen together “in chunks.”

Rathburn’s lawyer, James Howarth, urged the jury to focus on the documents in the case, not gruesome photographs. He said that Rathburn’s ex-wife, Elizabeth, is “most responsible” for any wrongdoing. She has pleaded guilty to one count of fraud and is expected to testify for the government.

“This case is so sensitive because the nature of the evidence is going to make us all cringe, make us all uneasy,” Howarth told the jury. He expressed the hope that the jury not be affected by the graphic nature of the evidence, but evaluate the case on the merit of legal arguments.

The government’s failure to stop Rathburn sooner, despite a decade of warning signs, was one in a series of stories reported in 2017 about the largely unregulated body broker industry.

As part of a news agency’s examination of the industry, a reporter was able to purchase two human heads and a cervical spine from a body broker in Tennessee. The deals were struck after just a few emails, at a cost of $900 plus shipping.

The series also profiled two Phoenix brokers—one who earned at least $12 million from the sale or use of donated body parts and another who regularly supplied Rathburn. The broker who sold Rathburn body parts, Steve Gore, pleaded guilty to defrauding customers and is expected to testify against Rathburn.

Last month, Reuters reported that federal agents discovered four preserved fetuses during the search of Rathburn’s warehouse.

The fetus photographs are not cited in any court filings and it is unclear if they will be presented at trial.

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