Erika Elam-Prewitt was only trying to honor her mother's last wishes by donating her remains to medical science. But she says that's a far cry from what she got. And to make matters worse, she's not even sure whose cremated remains she got back. Erika's mother Linda died of cancer at home surrounded by family. But at the time, Erika, an only child, could not afford a funeral and cremation. That's when she heard about the Biological Resource Center of Illinois.
"They offered us assistance in that way to providing us with cremation and an urn if we would agree to donate her remains for scientific research," said Erika. "It seemed like a viable solution. I know my mom would have wanted to use her to help others."
Erika says the company was clear on how her mother's remains were used for research.
"It was a pretty detailed letter for what they used her for training or research, that kind of thing," said Erika.
But soon after receiving her mother's ashes, she catches a story about the Biological Resource Center on the TV news. And the news is grim. Following up on an investigation FBI agents raid the company's headquarters in Chicago. About the same time they also raid the Biological Resource Center of Arizona in Phoenix. The two businesses have the same name and the same function but are separately owned. What FBI agents allegedly find in both places is too horrific to show on national television, or anywhere.
Attorney Brian Kabateck is investigating the claims of distraught families who handed over the remains of their loved ones to the centers in Chicago and Arizona.
"The investigation shows that the bodies were dismembered, they were sold in pieces, they were sold for a profit, and they were taken in some cases where the families hadn't authorized it," said Kabateck. "They were used for testing in crashes or automobiles."
And that includes testing by the military. Extreme testing, as in explosives.
Kabateck says in many cases bodies were cut up and sold in pieces making it impossible to track down and return the full cremated remains as promised to the families by the Biological Resource Center.
"They didn't completely ever disclose to the people that the body parts were being sold through brokers to different locations," said Kabateck. "In some cases the body parts were never reunited, and the cremated remains that were given to the family members may not be the cremated remains of their loved one."
The handling of donated remains for the benefit of science is a legitimate and regulated industry. But the owner of the Arizona Biological Resource Center, Stephen Gore, pleaded guilty to illegally conducting an enterprise and mishandling bodies in ways not consented to by families.
It gets worse. Stephen Gore also admitted in court that some bodies sold to unsuspecting buyers carried dangerous infectious diseases.
"We do know that in the indictment and a least one plea agreement, that some of the parties have already admitted they knew the body was HIV-positive or had hepatitis C, and yet they didn't disclose that to the entity the body was going to they were putting in grave danger the personnel who were working with that body," said Kabateck.
As of yet there have been no lawsuits filed by workers at Biological Resource or at companies that purchased cadavers for testing.
The main motive, Kabateck says, is profit.
"The bodies can be worth anywhere between $10,000 and $50,000 on the market legally sold, and the bodies are generally worth more dismembered than as an entire cadaver."
The Arizona Attorney General's Office has offered to help straighten out the mess. But incredibly, if families want any recovered remains identified and returned by the state, they will have to pay for it.
"It's not fair to the families that they have to pay for it, especially when they thought they were doing a good thing to get the cremated remains of their loved ones back," said Kabateck.
Kabateck says some families may never recover the complete remains of their loved ones. Civil suits allege the Biological Center of Illinois also lied to family members like Erika Elam-Prewitt, by saying remains would not be sold -- and then made a profit doing exactly that.