PHOENIX – Sam Kazemi stood
over the old man’s corpse. Nearby lay pliers, a scalpel and a
motorized saw designed to cut drywall and pipe.
On a busy day, Kazemi might
harvest body parts from five or six people who had donated their
bodies to science. On this day in November 2013, the corpse before
Kazemi typified the donors who gave their remains to his employer,
Biological Resource Center.
The man was a retired factory
worker with a ninth-grade education. He had lived with his wife in a
mobile home in Mohave Valley, Arizona, and had died six days
earlier, aged 75. His name was Conrad Patrick.
But after he died and his body
was donated, Patrick became a commodity, known by the company’s
initials and a number: BRC13112103.
Reuters reviewed thousands of
internal BRC records and confidential law enforcement documents
containing profiles of Patrick and 2,280 other donors. The documents
include invoices and inventories for thousands of body parts
harvested from those people. They show how their bodies were
dissected, which body parts were sent where, and why buyers obtained
Kazemi helped cut up and
package Patrick into seven pieces. BRC shipped Patrick’s left foot
to a Chicago-area orthopedic lab. His left shoulder was sent to a
Las Vegas company that holds surgical seminars. His head and
his spine went to a project run by the U.S. Army. And Patrick’s
“external reproductive organs” were sent to a local university. His
right foot and left knee were placed in the company’s freezers,
where they became part of BRC’s million-dollar inventory of flesh
For more than a year,Reuters has examined
America’s body trade,
a little-known and virtually unregulated industry. These businesses,
which call themselves non-transplant tissue banks, are also known as
The operations can resemble
meat-packing plants. At BRC, body parts from heads to fingernails
were harvested and sold. On Saturday mornings, Kazemi taught college
students how to dismember cadavers in the company lab. He also
starred in a grisly training video, demonstrating how to carve out a
man’s spine using a motorized saw.
The documents obtained by
Reuters – along with dozens of interviews with investigators, former
BRC workers and families of donors – offer an unparalleled look at
how one of America’s major body brokers operated.
The records, never before made
public, also reveal how little the government or the donors
themselves understood what was happening at the company, and show in
graphic detail how a cadaver becomes a commodity.
Sales invoices detail many of
For $607, BRC sold the liver
of a public school janitor to a medical-device company. The torso of
a retired bank manager, bought by a Swiss research institute,
fetched $3,191. A large Midwestern healthcare system paid $65 for
two femoral arteries, one from a church minister. And the lower legs
of a union activist were purchased by a Minnesota
product-development company for $350 each.
For raw material, the industry
relies in large part on people too poor to afford a funeral,
offering to cremate a portion of each donated body for free.
A Reuters analysis of BRC
donor files from May 3, 2011 through January 20, 2014 confirmed how
important the disadvantaged were to business. The vast majority of
BRC donors came from neighborhoods where the median household income
fell below the state average. Four out of five donors didn’t
graduate from college, about twice the ratio of the country as a
Before brokers accept a body,
they typically present the donor or next of kin with a consent
form. These agreements are often written in technical language that
many donors and relatives say they find hard to understand. The
documents give brokers the right to dismember the dead, then sell or
rent body parts to medical researchers and educators, often for
hundreds or thousands of dollars. At BRC, a whole body sold for
$5,893, records show.
Documents reviewed for this
article indicate that those figures are vastly understated. The
extent of BRC’s operation surprised even investigators who raided
the Phoenix-based company in 2014.
There, agents discovered 10
tons of frozen human remains – 1,755 total body parts that included
281 heads, 241 shoulders, 337 legs and 97 spines.
Applying a state forfeiture
law, authorities hauled away the contents of BRC’s freezers, filling
142 body bags. One bag held parts from at least 36 different people.
The seizure was so large that
officials struggled to properly handle the body parts. When plans to
cremate the remains stalled, officials brought three walk-in
freezers to a military base and stacked the body bags inside, one
atop another. Parts from 851 different people remained in those
freezers for almost three years before they were cremated.
After the BRC raid, the
company went out of business. Its founder and former owner, Stephen
Gore, later pleaded guilty to fraud – not for selling body parts but
for misleading customers by shipping them contaminated specimens.
His punishment: probation. He is expected to testify at the Rathburn
The percentage of BRC body
donors who did not graduate from college
Gore’s attorney, Clark
Derrick, said Gore always tried to act in the best interests of his
donors. “At some point the business grew exponentially, we became
shorthanded, we cut some corners, and for that I apologize and make
amends,” Derrick said on Gore’s behalf.
PROFITING OFF THE POOR
Gore housed his business in a
9,000-square-foot building once occupied by an insurance agency – a
one-story facility near two interstate highways and the Phoenix
airport. From 2005 until early 2014, court records show, BRC
received about 5,000 human bodies and distributed more than 20,000
Among the parts BRC sold for
the Army experiments were the heads and spines of Conrad Patrick and
Leon Small, a 71-year-old retiree who had once managed a furniture
On the consent forms Patrick
and Small signed, each man checked a box stating that he did not
wish to be used in military or destructive tests, records show.
But just days after Patrick
and Small died, a BRC employee called their widows and persuaded
them to amend the forms so their husbands could be used by the
military, according to recordings of the calls reviewed by Reuters.
The widows said the calls came during a traumatic time.
“I didn’t understand what they
were talking about,” Dona Patrick said. “But I said ‘OK.’”
Bodies or parts from at least
20 BRC donors were used without their consent in Army experiments,
Reuters found. Parts from Small and Patrick, however, were not. The
military halted testing when it learned of the raid at BRC.
The shoulders of both men were
sent to a for-profit surgical training company in Nevada.
The widows, Karen Small and
Dona Patrick, are among two dozen next of kin who said they were
surprised to learn that BRC profited from a relative’s donated body.
“They prey on people that have
no money, that are poor, that have no insurance – like us,” Patrick
Family members of some donors
said BRC employees led them to believe body donation was regulated
by federal and state authorities, and that selling body parts is
illegal. Based on those pitches, the relatives said they believed
the remains wouldn’t be sold. In truth, there are virtually no
regulations on the body trade.
“They prey on people that
have no money, that are poor, that have no insurance – like
“It’s a horrible thing,” Small
In a statement to Reuters last
year, Gore said his employees took “great care to ensure that donors
and their families were well-informed about the processes.” Gore
acknowledged at his sentencing that he relied on books and the
Internet for instruction on how to handle the bodies he sold.
“HOMEMADE HORROR MOVIE”
In 2012, BRC hired lab
technician Kazemi. He earned $21 an hour. Before joining the
company, his resume shows, he spent the previous decade working as a
real estate agent, a waiter at a Morton’s steakhouse and a manager
for an Olive Garden restaurant.
When he arrived at BRC, he was
35 and had just graduated from Arizona State University with a
degree in kinesiology, the study of body movement. At ASU, he was a
teaching assistant in an anatomy lab.
In 2013, Kazemi starred in a
BRC instructional video. It opens with a jarring title, punctuated
for emphasis: “Stripped Cervical Spine!”
The video begins with a
close-up of Kazemi wearing a mask, gloves, goggles and a surgical
gown. Then it pulls back to reveal a body face down on a table. The
man’s shoulders and arms have already been sheared off. The head
lolls from side to side until Kazemi holds it still.
With a scalpel, he makes
incisions along the neck and back, then peels away the man’s skin
and scalp. About seven minutes into the video, Kazemi picks up a
“On this one,” he says of the
cadaver, “we are using a sturdy, thicker 9-inch blade. You want to
make sure that the blade is long enough to reach from ear to ear
across the back.”
In his interview with Reuters,
Kazemi described the video as clinical and “not disrespectful to
donors” in any way. It was meant for internal use only, he
said. Kazemi also said he did not know how BRC acquired donors
or where body parts were shipped.
In hindsight, Kazemi said
using a motorized saw was wrong because it cannot be cleaned well
enough to avoid spreading diseases.
“Would I do something like
that now that I know better? No,” Kazemi said. “But at the time,
that’s what was provided to me.”
Two retired investigators for
the Arizona attorney general said even veteran prosecutors recoiled
when they viewed the 24-minute video.
“It was like a homemade horror
movie,” said Charles Loftus, the former assistant chief agent.
“It’s not how you treat
human beings ... You don’t throw them in a bunch of body bags and
then throw them into a freezer like a pile of garbage.”
“I couldn’t sleep at night
after seeing that,” said Matthew Parker, another former agent who
says he retired with a disability – post-traumatic stress disorder –
related to his work on the case. “It looked like a junkyard chop
shop where they are just ripping things apart.”
INTERNING AT BRC
Kazemi also spent Saturdays in
BRC’s lab teaching college students about dissection.
On one Saturday in late 2013,
ASU junior Emily Glynn said she showed up for her first day at the
lab. She was majoring in nutrition.
“I was really surprised when I
got the internship because I didn’t have any experience,” said
Glynn, then 20. “Just went in the first day and learned things on
That first day, under Kazemi’s
direction, interns used pliers to remove fingernails from donors,
“I don’t want to say it was
barbaric, but it was weird,” she said. “One day, I found myself
holding the hand of a 70-year-old woman and felt like I needed to
apologize to her, to say, ‘I’m sorry.’”
Neither Glynn nor Kazemi knew
how the fingernails were used, they said, and Reuters could not
locate invoices for that order. But the news agency did identify
fingernails from 22 other donors that were sold by BRC. They went to
a North Carolina bioengineering research company, SciKon Innovation.
SciKon CEO Randy McClelland
said he was unaware that BRC was raided by the FBI. He said his
business helps companies study how products enter the bloodstream
through fingernails. “Like new cosmetics that go on your skin,” he
On another Saturday, Glynn
said, Kazemi gathered the interns around the body of another elderly
“He says, ‘Emily, you’ve never
cut off a head before, and everyone else has, so do you want to
try?’” Glynn recalled. “And I’m, like, ‘OK.’”
As she held the reciprocating
saw, Glynn said, Kazemi steadied her grip.
“It wasn’t a full-on chainsaw
like you would see in a horror movie, but it was a smaller version,”
Glynn said. “And then I just went for it. I was expecting lots of
blood but there wasn’t much to it. It came right off,” she said of
the woman’s head.
Kazemi said he doesn’t
remember helping an intern cut off a head or any other body parts.
The Saturday sessions, he said, were more akin to lectures during
which he showed interns various organs and other body parts.
In her senior thesis, Glynn
described her time at BRC differently.
“One day, I found myself
holding the hand of a 70-year-old woman and felt like I needed to
apologize to her, to say, ‘I’m sorry.’”
“Over the course of the
internship, I stripped subcutaneous fat from the vertebrae of a
cervical spine, practiced performing cricothyrotomies (incisions to
the throat), sutured dismembered legs using an oversized needle and
twine, and decapitated an elderly woman with what looked and sounded
like a chainsaw from Home Depot,” Glynn wrote in her thesis. “Not
once did I receive formal training or instruction.”
BODY PARTS TO MIDDLEMEN
BRC’s customers were not
always directly acquiring body parts from the broker for their own
medical education, research or training programs. According to
invoices, some customers were middlemen – brokers who resold or
leased body parts originally donated to BRC. The consent forms gave
BRC the discretion to choose its customers, but the forms did not
state that body parts could be resold by third parties.
In 2012 and 2013, BRC sold at
least 961 body parts, including at least 224 human heads, to three
One was Innoved Institute LLC,
a Chicago-area medical lab provider that also supplies human body
parts. Innoved was among BRC’s best customers. It received at
least 32 shipments with 277 body parts. Innoved executives did
not respond to requests for comment.
Another was Rathburn, the
Detroit-area broker facing trial next month. He received at least 26
heads from BRC. Rathburn’s lawyers did not respond to a request for
The percentage of BRC body
donors who served in the military
A third middleman was
Biological Resource Center of Illinois, another Chicago-area broker.
Better known as BRC-IL, it received at least 658 body parts from
BRC. BRC-IL operated independently from BRC. But it was also raided
by FBI agents as part of the federal probe into suspected fraud
against donors and customers. No one has been charged with a crime
in the BRC-IL matter, and executives there did not respond to
requests for comment.
One of the shoulders shipped
to BRC-IL came from the body of Robert Louis DeRosier, a casino
security employee. He died at age 64 after a long battle with
His widow, Tama DeRosier,
lives in a mobile home park in Mohave Valley, Arizona. She said her
husband donated his body hoping it might contribute to diabetes
research. She did not expect anyone to make money selling his
“That’s morbid,” the widow
said. “Greed is a terrible thing.”
Russell Parker Jr, who helped
care for his dying brother Todd, said he was surprised to learn from
a reporter that BRC sold Todd’s right knee and offered to sell
Todd’s head. Friends had recommended BRC, he said. And when the
company returned his brother’s ashes, everything seemed “all on the
up and up, very professional.”
“Shame on BRC for showing such
disrespect,” Parker said. “That’s so wrong. It’s like trafficking.”
The companion of one donor
cited another area of confusion: BRC’s use of the term “tissue.”
In sales pitches and on
consent forms, body brokers commonly talk about retrieving tissue
from donors. To the medical community, “tissue” means any part of
the body – from an organ to a torso.
“Shame on BRC for showing
such disrespect. It’s like trafficking.”
But in interviews with
Reuters, family members of some donors said they believed “tissue”
meant only skin samples. Though BRC did sell skin, those sales
represented just 2 percent of its business, invoices show.
Maureen Krueger said her
partner of 42 years, Fidel Silva, told a female hospice worker in
his final days that he wished to be cremated.
“And that’s when she brought
it up: ‘Would you be interested in donating tissues?’” Krueger
The way she understood it,
Krueger said, a few skin samples would be removed for research
purposes. In return, BRC would cremate Silva for free. Silva, a
69-year-old construction worker with a high school degree, peppered
the hospice worker with questions.
“He asked, ‘Well, are you
sure? What are they going to do?’” Krueger said. “He wanted to know.
And that’s when she assured him it was only body tissues, they only
took samples, they didn’t remove any organs or parts or anything. It
was just tissues. And that’s when Fidel agreed.”
The conversation took place at
the Hospice of Havasu in Arizona. Its executive director, Dan
Mathews, said he could not discuss the matter due to patient-privacy
laws. But he said the hospice, which offers its clients options to
donate their bodies to science, “removed that company BRC from our
list of providers” upon hearing it was under investigation.
Internal BRC records show the
body broker removed Silva’s head, and his right and left arms from
shoulder to hand. Each was tagged with a tracking number and prepped
“Wow,” Krueger said. “I didn’t
really realize they could do all that. I mean, I didn’t understand
that’s what would happen with Fidel at all.”
BODY PARTS IN LIMBO
After the raid of BRC by
federal and state agents, the body parts seized by authorities
remained in limbo for almost three years. Their fate, detailed in
confidential state logs, sworn statements and photographs, has never
been made public.
Logistical problems began the
day of the raid, said former agents Parker and Loftus. Authorities
were stunned to find so much human flesh inside BRC, they said.
“We expected two freezers and
a few hundred pounds of body parts,” said Loftus, who’s now running
for state representative. “Instead, we found 40 freezers with 10
tons of bodies and parts.”
Agents entered in hazmat gear
and took biopsies from each body part to preserve as evidence.
Records show the agents then placed the 1,755 parts into 142 body
The bags were sent to 10 local
funeral homes so the remains could be cremated. But records and
interviews show that BRC and others for whom it was storing body
parts objected to their destruction. They argued that the parts had
a value of more than $1 million.
The cremation plans were put
on hold, but authorities soon faced a pressing problem, according to
former agents Loftus and Parker. Funeral homes could refrigerate but
not freeze the body parts, and the mortuaries began to complain that
some of the parts were starting to thaw.
As a solution, authorities
obtained three walk-in industrial freezers and installed them at a
military base used by the Arizona National Guard. Then, body bag by
body bag, the mortuaries delivered the parts, and Loftus and Parker
helped carry them into the freezers.
In an interview, Parker
recalled feeling body parts sloshing around inside the bags as he
moved them. Some bags leaked blood that stained his pants and shoes.
The experience led to his PTSD diagnosis, he said.
“It’s not how you treat human
beings, human remains,” Parker testified in a deposition as part of
his PTSD claim. “You don’t throw them in a bunch of body bags and
then throw them into a freezer like a pile of garbage.”
The spokeswoman for the
Arizona Attorney General’s Office said the body parts were kept for
federal authorities “as evidence in ongoing criminal investigations
and prosecutions across the country.” An FBI spokesman declined to
comment. In February, after almost three years in the containers,
the remains were cremated and returned to families that requested
them, the state spokeswoman said.
In response to the Gore case,
the Arizona governor signed into law a bill that requires body
brokers like BRC to be licensed and regularly inspected. The new law
calls for brokers to follow a set of standards and to hire a medical
doctor to supervise company practices.
Although the law was adopted a
year and a half ago, it has yet to be enforced: The state health
department still must create specific rules for brokers. It isn’t
clear when it will. Health department officials, said a spokeswoman,
“do not have an anticipated date of completion at this time.”