For nearly seven years, Arthur Rathburn and his wife, Elizabeth, ran a black-market business dealing diseased human body parts, federal prosecutors say.
He dismembered the bodies with a chainsaw, stored the parts — including heads and torsos — and prepared them for shipping, while she took orders from customers, according to court documents.
The Rathburns were charged earlier this year after investigators say they discovered that the couple from Michigan had been renting out often-diseased body parts to medical and dental students.
“This alleged scheme to distribute diseased body parts not only defrauded customers from the monetary value of their contracts, but also exposed them and others to infection,” U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade said in a January statement. “The alleged conduct risked the health of medical students, dental students and baggage handlers.”
The grisly case took a new turn earlier this week when Elizabeth Rathburn agreed to a plea deal, admitting that in 2012 she took body parts contaminated with hepatitis B and HIV to an American Society of Anesthesiologists conference in Washington and claimed they were free from disease, according to the agreement.
She pleaded guilty to wire fraud and agreed to testify against her estranged husband.
She also revealed that he had recently sent her a birthday present — violating a no-contact order, according to the Detroit Free Press.
“Oh, Jesus,” Arthur Rathburn snapped in court, according to the newspaper. “No contact means no contact,” his attorney said.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office said Thursday that his bond had been revoked and he had been taken into custody because he violated the order.
Arthur Rathburn came into public view when he was mentioned in a book called “Body Brokers: Inside America’s Underground Trade in Human Remains,” credited as an “investigative exposé of the lucrative business of procuring, buying, and selling human cadavers and body parts.”
It described Rathburn as “a tall man with an impressive mustache and a friendly demeanor” and said he had worked at the University of Michigan Medical School.
“At the university, he was responsible for tagging corpses and setting them up for students,” the book read. “When necessary, he arranged for the shipment of corpses to other medical schools in need of bodies, and to brokers.”
Rathburn was fired from his job at the university, which said he had been selling bodies for profit, according to the Detroit Free Press.
In 1989, the newspaper said, he set up his own shop as an independent body broker.
The Free Press reported that it wasn’t until federal authorities noticed “bizarre shipments arriving for Rathburn at Metro airport, including a bucket full of human heads that arrived from Israel one year,” that they started to investigate him.
From January 2007 until December 2013, authorities said, Arthur and Elizabeth Rathburn ran International Biological Inc., a Detroit-area corporation that purchased donated bodies from biological resource centers and rented them to researchers.
Human bodies bring in $10,000 to $100,000; brains, $600; and elbows and hands, $850, according to court records cited by the Free Press.
But they are suppose to be free of disease. Authorities said the macabre Michigan morticians rented out human remains that they knew had tested positive for hepatitis and HIV, among other diseases.
“Arthur and Elizabeth Rathburn sometimes obtained diseased remains from their suppliers at a reduced cost, due to the fact that end users of human remains generally reject infectious bodies and body parts for use in medical or dental training,” according to the indictment.
The couple would rent the remains to customers, “falsely representing to those customers that the remains were free of certain infectious diseases,” the indictment added.
The court documents said Arthur Rathburn increased the couple’s profit by not complying with standardized sanitation practices.
“Arthur Rathburn used a chainsaw, band saw and reciprocating saw to dismember bodies without taking sanitary precautions,” according to the indictment.
He “stored human heads by stacking them directly on top of each other without any protective barrier, apparently disregarding any risk of cross-contamination between infectious and non-infectious remains.”
Pools of frozen blood and bodily fluids were found in the freezers, the documents said.
The Rathburns were indicted in January on 13 counts, including wire fraud; aiding and abetting; transporting hazardous material; and making false statements.
The next month, Arthur Rathburn was released on bond.
Moments after his release, he stood on a street corner in a navy blue sweatsuit and orange Crocs, telling reporters it hadn’t been easy.
“I’m doing all right,” he said, according to the Free Press. “Or at least I’m trying to.”
If convicted, Arthur Rathburn could face up to 20 years in prison.
On Monday, Elizabeth Rathburn took her plea deal in the case.
In 2012, authorities said, she took diseased body parts that the Rathburns’ company had purchased at a discount to the American Society of Anesthesiologists conference; to do so, she filled out a form declaring that the remains had tested negative for HIV and hepatitis A, B and C, according to the plea agreement.
The court documents say conference organizers would not have accepted the specimens “had the organization known of the positive HIV or hepatitis test results.”
Under the plea deal, she agreed to pay $55,225 in restitution to the American Society of Anesthesiologists.
Elizabeth Rathburn’s sentencing is set for July 18. She faces up to 10 months in jail.
Her attorney could not immediately be reached for comment.
This story has been updated.