Story of Human Remains Shipment Takes an Even More Macabre Turn

Grisly discovery is part of a larger conspiracy to illegally sell disease-infected body parts.

November 13, 2017 10:01 am
Heart Transplant
Rouen hospital, France. Cardiac transplantation, heart transplant,. The coordinating nurse brings the transplant to the surgeon. (BSIP/UIG via Getty Images)

The gruesome interception of a shipment of body parts at Detroit Metro Airport has launched a federal investigation into a criminal enterprise that shipped infected human remains across state lines, reports Pacific Standard. But now the story grows even more grim and macabre.

According to the FBI, the specimens shipped by International Biological, Inc., were infected with disease-causing organisms (including Hepatitis B and HIV), which IBI found Rathburn is accused of lying about and thereby violating laws against transporting hazardous material. He’s also being accused of wire fraud and making false statements to federal agents.

In a recent cover story, Pacific Standard exposed IBI as one of numerous small companies in the US that provides human specimens to the medical profession at large. This is not an uncommon practice, as surgeons, anesthesiologists, dentists, scientists doing transcranial research, and even some pharmaceutical practices require training on human remains.

The problem comes from a lack of federal oversight for what are called non-transplant anatomical donations. As a result, human remains donated with the best of intentions can get literally carved up by a confusing network of brokers, independent firms, and companies like IBI, who then ship them all over the country.

FBI surveillance and former employees allege that much worse happened under Rathburn’s watch. Former IBI workers claim that he poured biological waste down a drain, that he pawned gold removed from cadavers’ teeth, and that he instructed them to evade the Centers for Disease Control. An on-site FBI investigation of Rathburn’s cadaver storage facility revealed “chainsaws, band saws, and reciprocating saws,” as well as “heads stacked on top of each other, with frozen blood and bodily fluids pooled beneath, in the warehouse’s freezers, in violation of industry sanitation protocols.”

Rathburn is pleading not guilty to all charges and accusing the FBI of fudging facts, but the issue looming over this investigation is that Rathburn is part of a much larger, and largely unsupervised, industry that arguably trafficks human bodies to the highest bidder with virtually no consideraton of public safety. Indicting Rathburn won’t mean much if that system is kept in place.

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