Linda Hayes finds it difficult to talk about her husband Tom’s dying wish. He wanted his body to be used for medical research. Instead, she said, it was dismembered and sold to the highest bidder.
“His body was leased to a nurse, anesthetist seminar that was held here in Chicago for $5,000,” Hayes said. “Once his body was returned to Biological Resource [of Illinois], some of his joints were sold to a company for $5,000. And then the last bit of paper trail on him is that they sold more of his joints to another company for $5,000. And then the paper trail ends for my husband. So I know they made $15,000 off his body and no good came of it.”
Hayes suspects her husband’s remains fell into an underground world where human cadavers are bought and sold on the black market and people known as “body brokers” make a profit off the bodies of those who wanted their remains donated to science.
“Nothing that Tom wanted to happen after he died happened,” Hayes said.
Federal agents last year raided body donation businesses in Michigan, Arizona and Illinois. None of the owners have been charged, but Stephen Gore, owner of the Biological Resource Center of Arizona, recently pleaded guilty to running an illegal body donation center. All three businesses chose to shut down after the raids and have not re-opened.
NBC 5 Investigates found that the altruistic, good intentions of those who want to donate their bodies are sometimes disregarded. Instead, it was found that some “body brokers” are making money from the dead. They are accused of deceiving donor families, dismembering bodies without permission and selling body parts for hefty fees.
“Tissue and bone and parts are being sold anywhere from $100,000 to $200,000,” said Gerald Sullivan, the International Delegate for the Cremation Association of North America
Thousands of body parts were confiscated during the FBI’s raids. Among them were the remains of Joseph Senderak.
“They told me they cremated his body,” said his wife, Cathy Senderak.
When Cathy Senderak received her husband’s ashes, she had no reason to question the contents, until she got a call from the feds.
“They told me that they have most of my husband’s body,” Senderak said. “They said we don’t have his head and we don’t have parts of his arms.”
Biological Resource Center of Illinois provided us with a copy of their standard release. And an attorney for BRCI told us, “There is no basis for any misunderstandings about the donation process and what it entailed.”
“The claim that BRCI “sold” donated anatomical material is false,” Daniel Fahner added.
“BRCI had no knowledge of any improper distribution or misuse of tissue donated for medical and research purposes, by either Biological Resource Center of Arizona or International Biological, Inc.”
But former Industry insider Chris Truitt who has also written a book on the subject, says donor families have no idea what actually happens once a loved one is donated.
“You’re slicing open arms, slicing open legs, pulling out bones,” Truitt said. “The more raw products you could get, the more money you would earn per donor.”
For years, Truitt worked stripping bodies of anything and everything that could be sold for a profit.
The law is clear. You can’t sell body parts. But there is a legal loophole. And that loophole allows companies to collect a reasonable fee for finding, storing and processing bodies. Those fees have allowed the altruistic act of donating a body to flourish into a multi-billion dollar industry.
“There’s always the possibility for problems when you have an industry that’s unregulated,” said Kevin Cmunt, former president of the American Association of Tissue Banks.
Organ donation is heavily regulated, and tissue banking is policed by the FDA, but there is no government agency monitoring whole body donation.
The American Association of Tissue Bank offers a voluntary accreditation, but NBC 5 Investigates discovered that only six whole body donation businesses are accredited in the U.S.
Another confusing area of this industry is that some of the body donation companies are for profit, while others like Anatomical Gift Association are non-profit. All donations to AGA end up at medical schools, like the lab at Rush University Medical Center. The cadavers there are used to teach students and doctors.
That’s exactly what Cathy Senderak and Linda Hayes thought would happen with their husbands’ bodies.
“He wanted people to learn about his disease and medical students to learn things that scientists haven’t yet learned,” Senderak said.
“He thought he could help. He thought he could contribute something,” Hayes said. “All he did was contribute to their pocketbook.”