Just when you thought federal prosecutors couldn't paint a less-flattering portrait of cadaver dealer Arthur Rathburn, new details emerge about his body broker business: He washed human remains down the drain, had a habit of storing heads in mouthwash, and cremated only the torsos of donors without telling the families, court records show.
And he did all this to make money, allege federal prosecutors and the FBI, who after years of building a criminal case against Rathburn are preparing to take their case to trial in the coming months, though a date has not been set.
The Grosse Pointe Park businessman is accused of renting infected body parts to unsuspecting medical researchers and lying to donors' families about what he did with their loved ones' bodies. He allegedly dismembered the bodies and rented out their parts, without the families' knowledge or consent.
Rathburn, meanwhile, is trying to keep a lot of the grisly details out of the jury trial, which will be full of exhibits and allegations that he committed many crimes, like cutting up bodies with chain saws, shipping blood-filled coolers of fresh heads on commercial airliners and storing more than 1,000 body parts on ice at his warehouse in Detroit. The FBI seized those body parts during a 2013 raid. Rathburn sought to suppress that evidence, but U.S. District Judge Paul Borman this week denied his request, noting the warehouse "appears to be a hub of the illegal activity" and that the items seized were "relevant to the ongoing criminal investigation."
Rathburn is due in court Friday for a status conference.
Meanwhile, new details have surfaced about the case in court filings, including statements from three confidential sources who helped the FBI build its case against Rathburn. Two of the informants were Rathburn's employees, including one who provided this information to the FBI:
"Arthur Rathburn disposes of human biological waste down the drain and in the regular garbage at (his) Detroit facility ... contrary to all of his statements that he abides by all local, state and federal regulations," an FBI agent wrote in an affidavit. "When Rathburn sends the body for cremation, not all of the body is sent. Rathburn keeps some of the parts for later use — these are not returned to the family."
The donors' families, records show, were often kept in the dark about Rathburn's activities, which he ran out of International Biological Inc., a rundown warehouse near Detroit's city airport.
"Rathburn has said to (an employee) that when he cremates a body, he is only talking about the torso," an FBI affidavit shows. "The head, neck, arms and legs are never sent back to the family. The families are not told that they are only getting back part of their loved ones; they believe they are getting the whole body back."
Rathburn also has been tied to several shipments of human heads that raised red flags at airports over the years, including a 2012 package that was filled with 18 human heads arriving from Italy at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago. The value on the package was $18, records show. One of the heads belonged to a man who had expressly restricted the use of his remains to nonprofit groups. But Rathburn's business was for profit, and so was the Illinois company he was dealing with, records show.
This was not the first time Rathburn came under the radar over a head shipment. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention intercepted another shipment of heads that arrived in Detroit from Israel. The heads were not embalmed but soaked in mouthwash and water, which contradicted Rathburn's claims that they had been embalmed, records show. One of the heads belonged to a person who died of "sepsis, unknown bacteria."
After years of being closely watched by the government, Rathburn was indicted in January alongside his wife, Elizabeth Rathburn, who cut a deal in the case and pleaded guilty to helping her now-estranged husband run International Biological. Authorities said that between 2007 and 2013 the Rathburns bought body parts from suppliers in Arizona and Illinois, stored them in their Detroit warehouse and then rented them out to medical and dental researchers.
It was a lucrative business, authorities said. Human bodies bring in $10,000 to $100,000; brains, $600; and elbows and hands, $850, according to court records.
Elizabeth Rathburn has agreed to testify against Rathburn, who if convicted faces up to 20 years in prison. Elizabeth Rathburn pleaded guilty to wire fraud, admitting that she took human remains infected with HIV and hepatitis B to an anesthesiology conference in Washington, D.C., in 2012, claiming that the body parts were disease-free when she knew otherwise.
Under the terms of her plea deal, Elizabeth Rathburn faces four to 10 months in prison and has to pay $55,225 in restitution to the American Anesthesiology Association, which had rented the diseased body parts from the Rathburns' company.
Though Arthur Rathburn's name first surfaced a decade ago in a book called "Body Brokers," he did not fall under the FBI's radar until years later, when federal agents started tracking what appeared to be bizarre shipments arriving for Rathburn at Metro Airport.
Before getting into the body parts trade as a private dealer, Rathburn was the coordinator of the University of Michigan's anatomical donation program in 1984-90, but he got fired after he was caught selling bodies. In 1989, he started his own business supplying body parts.
"While this trade is not, in and of itself, illegal ... ," an FBI agent wrote in an affidavit, "crimes have been committed."
Contact Tresa Baldas: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Tbaldas.