DETROIT - When the feds raided Arthur Rathburn’s Detroit warehouse four years ago, it was “filthy,” FBI Special Agent Leslie Larsen testified during the first day of the cadaver dealer’s trial in federal court Friday.
Larsen said she saw piles of dead flies, including in the “cutting room,” dry blood on the floor and body parts frozen together at the facility on Grinnell Avenue that had no heat, running water or working bathrooms.
According to her testimony, body parts were stored in a variety of containers such as Rubbermaid bins and 55-gallon drums; tools, including a chainsaw and circular saw, were at the warehouse and in one area, agents found human remains and food next to each other.
“We seized human remains, documents and tools,” Larsen testified of the December 2013 raid.
Rathburn, a Grosse Pointe Park businessman, ran a body parts business out of Detroit and was indicted in 2016 following an investigation that spanned years. He's accused of supplying infected body parts to unsuspecting medical researchers. He faces charges of wire fraud, transportation of hazardous material and making false statements. Lawyers gave opening statements Friday and told jurors grisly evidence would be presented during the trial.
"A number of the photographs ... are gruesome," Assistant U.S. Attorney John Neal said.
He said the case is about lying, deception and knowingly concealing information from people with whom Rathburn did business.
Neal also told jurors Rathburn used saws to dismember bodies and said crowbars were used to separate frozen body parts.
During the trial, which is expected to span several weeks, jurors will hear from Rathburn's customers, his ex-wife, Elizabeth Rathburn, who was charged but cut a deal in her case, and Stephen Gore, an Arizona businessman and one of Rathburn's associates, who pleaded guilty to running an illegal body donation center.
James Howarth, one of Rathburn's attorneys, called Elizabeth Rathburn and Gore important witnesses in the case.
Howarth said Elizabeth Rathburn, who pleaded guilty to wire fraud, admitting she took human remains infected with HIV and Hepatitis B to a medical conference in 2012, got a “sweet deal” with the government requiring her to testify against Arthur Rathburn, her partner at International Biological Inc.
Howarth also questioned Gore’s character.
One of the challenges of the case is the nature of evidence, which will make people cringe, Howarth said.
“At best this is a contract case,” he told jurors, adding prosecutors may say Rathburn violated a contract, but he denies doing so and maintains he didn’t violate any federal laws.
Jurors were given a folder Friday with pictures showing conditions at the warehouse and reviewed them as Larsen testified, but prosecutors did not put those photos on a large screen set up in the courtroom.
During cross-examination, defense attorneys showed pictures on the screen, including cleaning products on a shelf, a bottle of disinfectant and the area described as the “cutting room” with clean tools hanging on the wall. The room didn’t appear dirty in a picture, but Larsen said the floor was covered in dirt.
Two witnesses took the stand Friday, including Dr. Kevin Vorenkamp, an anesthesiologist in Seattle. He testified doctors won’t accept bodies that have tested positive for diseases like HIV and hepatitis because of concerns about cutting into them.
Under the deal to supply the cadaver, Vorenkamp expected a body needed for an anesthesiology conference in Washington, D.C. to be free of those diseases, but later found out it wasn't.
Prosecutors have alleged Rathburn purchased body parts from suppliers in Arizona and Illinois, stored them in Detroit and supplied them to researchers.
Court records show a human cadaver is worth $10,000 to $100,000 if sold in parts.
Testimony in the trial continues Tuesday morning before U.S. District Judge Paul Borman.
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