By Serena Maria Daniels and John Shiffman
DETROIT (Reuters) – A Detroit businessman who sold and leased human body parts was sentenced to nine years in prison Tuesday for selling diseased remains to medical educators.
Arthur Rathburn, 64, is the third and most significant person convicted as part of a national investigation into the largely unregulated market for body parts in the United States. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is also investigating other so-called body brokers in Illinois, Oregon and Colorado, and has executed search warrants in each of those cases.
Prosecutors said Rathburn earned $13 million from 1997 to 2013 by selling or leasing human remains that had been donated to science.
During a January trial, an FBI agent testified that Rathburn took little care as he stockpiled body parts in freezers at his Detroit warehouse. The agent said parts from various donors were found “frozen together in flesh-on-flesh chunks.”
Among the relatives of those whose bodies were donated to science and ended up in Rathburn’s warehouse is Tracy Smolka of Kankakee, Illinois. Her father, Randolph Wright, died in 2010. Three years later, the FBI found her father’s head in Rathburn’s freezer. Smolka faced Rathburn for the first time Monday, in court.
“I hope you burn in hell,” Smolka told him. “And when you get there, make sure to tell the devil I sent you.”
Rathburn was not prosecuted for his treatment of human remains: U.S. law governs only body parts intended for transplantation, such as hearts and livers. Rathburn was convicted of defrauding customers and violating hazardous shipping laws.
According to a government tally, Rathburn supplied unwitting medical educators with body parts infected with HIV or hepatitis at least 120 times from 1997 to 2013. The government’s failure to stop Rathburn sooner, despite a decade of warning signs, was documented in stories Reuters published last year about the body trade.
Rathburn did not testify at the trial but spoke during the sentencing hearing, in his first public comments since his arrest in 2016. In a rambling statement, Rathburn denied that he intentionally misled those who bought or leased body parts from him. He blamed mistakes on others and portrayed his lab as “clean, perfect.” He described himself as a visionary in the field — a scientist “ahead of his time.”
“I know how some of you thought this was barbaric,” Rathburn said of the body parts trade. “I can understand your point of view, but this was necessary.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney John Neal said Rathburn’s comments show that he has no remorse.
“Mr. Rathburn has learned nothing from this experience. If permitted to leave prison any time soon, he will commit fraud again,” Neal said. “Mr. Rathburn believes he can talk his way out of anything.”
Earlier, Rathburn’s ex-wife, Elizabeth Rathburn, and one of the couple’s suppliers, Steve Gore, were also convicted of fraud. Each pleaded guilty, was sentenced to probation, and testified against Arthur Rathburn. Gore ran the Phoenix-based Biological Resource Center, which sold more than 20,000 parts from some 5,000 human bodies over a decade. It closed in 2014, following a raid by the FBI.
(Reporting by Serena Maria Daniels in Detroit and John Shiffman in Washington. Edited by Blake Morrison.)