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FBI wants to cremate remains found in Detroit body broker's warehouse

FBI evidence lockers and freezers now contain the gruesome evidence, an undisclosed number of bodies, heads, arms, legs, organs, torsos, and apparently, fetuses.

June 11, 2018

By Gus Burns

The FBI's description of a Detroit warehouse raided in December 2013 is reminiscent of a horror film.

It was an extraordinarily unusual case involving a body broker, who legally operated a business that dealt in severed human parts, but engaged in some dishonest rental transactions that have landed him in federal prison.

FBI evidence lockers and freezers now contain the gruesome evidence, an undisclosed number of bodies, heads, arms, legs, organs, torsos, and apparently, fetuses.

Officials haven't said what will happen with those human remains, but on Tuesday, June 5, federal prosecutors filed a request for a court order to cremate the body parts and return ashes to the respective families. 

Tracy Smolka of Kankanee, Illinois, whose father's head she's told is in an FBI freezer, says she was contacted by federal agents who told her the remains will be part of a mass cremation and memorial service. No further details were provided.

FBI Special Supervisory Agent Ray Johnson told MLive the agency has "a couple loose ends" to clear up before commenting on what will happen with the remains and other evidence.

Arthur Rathburn, the Grosse Pointe Park man who owned and operated International Biological Inc. -- a company the FBI says kept a "cutting room" inside the Detroit warehouse for dividing body into parts for shipment -- was convicted on federal fraud and illegal transport of hazardous biological materials charges in May.

The 64-year-old, accused of renting diseased body parts to unwitting customers for use in nearly 140 medical training courses between 2000 and 2013, was sentenced to nine years in prison.

Now, the question remains, what happens with the evidence? Neither the FBI nor the U.S. Attorney's office have responded to questions about exactly what human remains were collected during the investigation and what will happen with them.

Authorities and attorneys in the criminal case have been curiously quiet about photos leaked to Reuters depicting four fetuses collected during the search of Rathburn's warehouse.

While assistant prosecutors and witnesses presented graphic details about the evidence during Rathburn's trial, fetuses were never mentioned.

"Good luck with that," said Rathburn's defense attorney Craig Daly, when asked by for information about the origin and intended use of the fetuses.

The U.S. Attorney's Office denied a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by MLive for records pertaining to the human remains.

The government said fulfilling the FOIA request would require a release signed by a living representative of the deceased persons, required death certificates -- there would be no death certificate if a fetus was aborted -- or justification that the public interest in release of the records outweighs the privacy rights of the deceased.

On Dec. 27, 2017, a day after Reuters published the leaked fetus photos, there was a federal court hearing to determine which FBI evidence photos would be presented to the jury during Rathburn's trial.

Photos of the fetuses were never mentioned; however, U.S. District Judge Paul D. Borman ordered an MLive reporter, the only member of the public in the courtroom at the time, to leave so participants could have a closed-door discussion about a topic that, if publicized, Borman said could prejudice the trial.

Following Rathburn's conviction, MLive requested transcripts from the Dec. 27 hearing and was told the contents remain under seal.

The presence of aborted fetuses has caught the interest of many, including Grand Rapids-based Right to Life of Michigan.

The anti-abortion group's spokesman, Chris Gast, attended the opening day of Rathburn's trial hoping to learn more about the fetuses in the Detroit warehouse.

"We want to know if he bought these babies from an abortion clinic, which may have violated our old state law at the time," Gast said. "The evidence may also shed additional light on ongoing issues regarding fetal tissue research.

"Even if these babies were stillborn and Rathburn got them from a hospital, there still may be violations of state law. Out of human decency, the parents of these children have the same right to know as the families of all of the other people whose bodies were handled so grotesquely."

Right to Life of Michigan has also sent the U.S. Attorney's Office a records request for information about the fetuses, which he said was denied. Right to Life of Michigan plans to appeal, Gast said.

During the raid of Rathburn's warehouse, federal agents spent days using a pneumatic chisel to separate frozen clumps of heads, arms, legs, organs and torsos found in a Detroit warehouse in 2013, FBI Agent Leslie Larsen testified at the start of Rathburn's trial.

There were 10-20 piles of dead flies and other insects, no running water and apparent cross-contamination betwen bodies, or body parts stored in contact with one another.

While Rathburn's business wasn't inherently illegal -- someone with a mortuary license is allowed to operate a business cutting up and distributing organs and body parts for scientific study or medical training -- a jury determined that Rathburn lied or deceived customers by purchasing infected bodies at a discount and renting them to unwitting medical training course organizers.

Sepsis, HIV and hepatits were among the diseases or infections the body parts were determined to have.

Before being sentenced to prison, Rathburn thanked the donors of the bodies that his company rented to medical conferences for years, and he appeared to shed tears.

"To the families that are here, every individual (who donated their body to science), I can assure you, was used to the best of our abilities," Rathburn said.

Rathburn said he never intended to deceive his customers.

He claimed that in some cases, customers knew donors had previously tested positive for HIV, hepatitis or sepsis, and they were OK with it.

In other instances, he blames mistakes on his ex-wife, Elizabeth Rathburn, who helped run the business. He also blamed or Biological Resource Center of Illinois, the donor company that provided Rathburn with the vast majority of the corpses.

Elizabeth Rathburn, who co-owned International Biological Inc., previously pleaded guilty to a count of aiding and abetting wire fraud.

She was sentenced to two years probation.

Rathburn is appealing his sentence and conviction.


FBI wants to cremate remains found in Detroit body broker's warehouse |

FBI evidence lockers and freezers now contain the gruesome evidence, an undisclosed number of bodies, heads, arms, legs, organs, torsos, and apparently, fetuses.
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