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Human chop shop that sold body parts for experiments without consent ordered to pay $58 million to donors’ families

The Biological Resource Center shut down after the FBI raided it in 2014. (Screen shot/Fox 10)
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The body broker arrived to pick up Jim Stauffer’s mother within 45 minutes of her death.

Stauffer wanted to donate his mom’s body to science, hoping that the Biological Resource Center in Phoenix could turn his mother’s brain over for Alzheimer’s research. He filled out all the paperwork, and 10 days later, received her ashes in a wooden box.

But at the time, in 2013, Stauffer didn’t know that the ashes he received were just from his mother’s hand. He didn’t know, as Reuters would later discover, that the rest of her body had been shipped to the Army for a Pentagon experiment — to be used as a test dummy in an IED blast.

“She was then supposedly strapped in a chair on some sort of apparatus,” Stauffer told KNXV in July, “and a detonation took place underneath her to basically get an idea of what the human body goes through when a vehicle is hit by an IED.”

The painful revelation would lead Stauffer to join more than 20 others in a lawsuit against Biological Resource Center alleging fraud and deception. On Tuesday, after years of litigation, the civil trial finally came to a close.

In Maricopa County Superior Court, a jury awarded $58 million in damages to the plaintiffs, finding that the Phoenix body donation company and its owner deceived the families into donating their loved ones’ bodies only for them to end up dismembered and distributed for profit all over the country. Ten out of 21 plaintiffs were awarded the damages, which included $50 million in punitive damages and $8 million in compensatory damages, although a full list of which plaintiffs were awarded the money was not immediately available.

A lawyer for the plaintiffs, Michael S. Burg, said in a statement that the case was a first-of-its-kind in the body-brokering business, and hoped the verdict would send a message to the rest of the industry about the consequences for deceiving body donors.

“The selling of human remains is an underground industry that most people don’t know about,” Burg said. “These funeral homes defrauded grieving families by obtaining the remains of their loved ones and then selling body parts on the black market. It was an honor to help bring an element of closure to the families who have suffered from the horrific actions of these individuals.”

During the trial, Biological Resource Center’s attorney, Timothy O’Connor, argued that the plaintiffs signed consent agreements that said bodies could be “disarticulated,” and stressed that dismembering a body “doesn’t mean it hasn’t been treated with dignity and respect,” the Arizona Republic reported.

Tuesday’s verdict comes after a years-long, cross-country investigation that has since resulted in multiple convictions and numerous lawsuits against body brokers. Biological Resource Center’s owner, Stephen Gore, was convicted in 2015 of running an illegal enterprise, for selling body parts from people with infectious diseases to unwitting buyers. He was sentenced to four years of probation.

While it’s legal to sell body parts for research, it’s not legal to sell infected body parts or to deceive the families donating the body about how it will be used. Gore was accused of doing both.

Biological Resource Center would solicit bodies from grieving families looking to donate loved ones’ bodies for medical research while offering to cremate a portion of the body for free. But in the lawsuit, the plaintiffs said they had no idea their loved ones were being chopped up and tossed into freezers with hundreds of others parts: feet, shoulders, legs, spines, even genitalia. And they had no idea the bodies would be used for ballistics testing or as crash dummies, the lawsuit said.

Full bodies, Reuters found, were sold for $5,893 each.

In its 2016 investigation, Reuters found that even if people specifically checked off boxes saying they did not give consent for their loved one’s body to be used in a violent experiment, in some cases, Biological Resource Center ignored those wishes. Stauffer said he checked “no” for military or traffic experiments. So did the family of a veteran who grew to despise Veterans Affairs over insufficient medical care — only for his body to end up in a Defense Department experiment.

“This is almost beyond belief that his entire body went somewhere else without his permission, and especially to a place that he absolutely did not want to be,” the veteran’s granddaughter told Reuters. “To go to the Department of Defense is absolutely mind-boggling.”

Gore founded the company in 2004 after becoming bored with selling insurance, teaching himself about the body trade on the Internet, Reuters reported. But it was only by chance, about 10 years later, that his company’s practices fell under scrutiny.

The company first caught the eye of the feds in 2011 when a Detroit-based body broker was caught crossing the border into Canada with severed heads, some of which were traced back to Biological Resource Center, Reuters reported.

Another incident would draw yet more attention to Gore just one year later, when, at a Delta cargo warehouse in Detroit, two bloody camper coolers started leaking all over the floor.

Baggage handlers were alarmed. The blood was oozing out of the containers, and federal authorities, called to investigate, were bracing for a gruesome discovery. They flipped open the lids, and inside, they found eight severed heads, packaged in trash bags and resting in pools of blood, according to a federal indictment.

One of the heads came from a person who had died from bacterial sepsis and aspiration pneumonia, the indictment said.

There was an address on the coolers. It led to a body broker, Arthur Rathburn.

Gore, it turns out, was one of Rathburn’s main body-part suppliers. Like Gore, Rathburn would also be convicted — but in federal court — of fraud for selling and transporting infected body parts.

In 2014, the FBI raided Gore’s chop shop in Phoenix, and were aghast at what they found.

There were heads thrown in buckets. Coolers full of penises. Body parts tossed in freezers without any apparent identification and a torso with a different head sewn on, like “Frankenstein,” an FBI agent said in an affidavit, ABC15 reported.

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich told the Arizona Republic in 2016 that the investigation into BRC could be traced back to a grisly Delta cargo discovery, though it’s unclear whether he was referencing the same one in the Rathburn bust. Brnovich had said authorities found 15 severed heads.

“This investigation ... was initiated when you had a body company trying to ship 15 severed human heads in plastic ice coolers on a Delta cargo flight, dripping blood," he said, “and that’s how customs found the shipment and that’s what began this whole process.”

Before being sentenced for running the illegal business in 2015, the Republic reported, Gore wrote in a letter to the judge: “I could have been more open about the process of donation on the brochure we put in public view. When deciding which donors could be eligible to donate, I should have hired a medical director rather than relying on medical knowledge from books or the Internet.”

On Tuesday, plaintiffs who were identified as those who were awarded damages told local media that closure still felt just out of reach. “You feel like you’ve won something but it’s not a win,” Troy Harp, who had donated his mother and grandmother’s bodies to BRC years ago, told KPHO.

Gwen Aloia, who said her husband’s body parts were found in several different states, told the station she hoped to use the money to honor her husband and give back. But she said she cried for the plaintiffs who were not awarded damages, which an attorney said may have been because they did not testify, the Associated Press reported. All of the plaintiffs, Aloia said, have been equally traumatized.

“I don’t know if the ashes they gave me back are really him,” she told KPHO. “It’s just … it’s horrific.”