The trial of a Michigan man who sold body parts to researchers began Friday with testimony describing a grisly warehouse of human remains “frozen together in flesh-on-flesh chunks.”
Arthur Rathburn, who sold or leased donated body parts, including human heads, to medical researchers for two decades, is charged with defrauding customers by selling them body parts infected with hepatitis and HIV, and with lying to federal agents about shipments, Reuters reports.
The buying and selling of body parts for research and education is legal under U.S. law. Regulations only cover body parts intended for transplant, such as hearts and livers.
FBI Special Agent Leslie Larsen said that during the 2013 raid of Rathburn’s Detroit warehouse, she saw piles of dead flies, including in the “cutting room,” dry blood on the floor and body parts frozen together at the facility on Grinnell Avenue that had no heat, running water or working bathrooms, the Detroit Free Press reported.
Body parts were stored in containers such as paint cans, beer coolers and 55-gallon drums, she testified. Tools, including a chainsaw and circular saw, were at the warehouse, and agents found human remains and food next to each other.
Authorities also allegedly found four fetuses preserved in liquid alongside human brain tissue, Reuters reported.
Court records show a human cadaver is worth $10,000 to $100,000 if sold in parts.
Law enforcement authorities took aim at Rathburn after U.S. Customs agents seized a severed head he provided for a dental seminar while transporting it from Tel Aviv to Chicago.
The head was infected with sepsis, authorities said, and its packaging failed to meet shipping standards. It was packed in a trash bag in some fluid, inside a cooler, U.S. Attorney John Neal said during his opening statements, Fox News reported.
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. “There’s nothing particularly pretty about a deceased body that has been separated into parts, but I would hope no one would have bad feelings toward Mr. Rathburn because of that.”
During the trial, which is expected to last weeks, jurors will hear from Rathburn’s customers, his ex-wife, and Stephen Gore, an Arizona businessman and one of Rathburn’s associates, who pleaded guilty to running an illegal body donation center.
Testimony in the trial continues Tuesday morning before U.S. District Judge Paul Borman.
Rathburn could face at least 14 years in prison if convicted.