Body Brokers: New reporting shows how money is still being made off the dead

Published on
November 8, 2017

The email subject line said, “The more things change.”

It was from my friend Ron Campbell, now a data editor for a group of NBC stations in Southern California. We worked together side by side as investigative reporters at the Orange County Register on a series of stories in 1999, 2000, and 2001 about the buying and selling of human body parts. The experience was one of the peaks of my journalism career, getting to work with and learn from journalism giants like Susan Kelleher, Mark Katches, Liz Kowalczyk, and, of course, the ever vigilant, always skeptical, incredibly funny Ron.

We called the main set of pieces — our award entry for 2000 — “The Body Brokers.” Ron’s email took me to a link where I saw the same title as part one of a new series by Reuters. During our reporting, I had the unforgettable experience of going to the home of a guy who sold body parts and seeing a human skull covered in bugs slowly eating away every last bit of flesh, part of the cleaning process to sell human skulls for classrooms and comic book shops. The Reuters series, reported by Brian Grow and John Shiffman, took gruesome to the next level. (Avert your eyes if you are eating breakfast.)

In the fall of 2015, neighboring tenants began complaining about a mysterious stench and bloody boxes in a Dumpster. That December, local health records show, someone contacted authorities to report odd activity in the courtyard. Health inspectors found a man in medical scrubs holding a garden hose. He was thawing a frozen human torso in the midday sun. As the man sprayed the remains, “bits of tissue and blood were washed into the gutters,” a state health report said. The stream weaved past storefronts and pooled across the street near a technical school.

The more things stay the same.

This is what Susan, Mark, Liz, Ron, and I wrote about repeatedly for close to three years, and, at the time many, many promises were made to fix what was universally agreed to be an unethical, unsanitary, and, essentially, unfair means to — in some cases — a noble end. When it works perfectly, people are asked to donate a deceased loved one’s body parts. Those donations go on to keep other people alive (vital organs), restore eyesight (corneas), heal devastating burns (skin), rejuvenate busted knees and elbows (tendons), a long list of life improvements that would justify the ever-present word “gift” used in so many donation brochures. Beyond that, as Reuters notes, there is a world of education and research that benefits from body parts:

Surgeons say no mannequin or computer simulation can replicate the tactile response and emotional experience of practicing on human body parts. Paramedics, for example, use human heads and torsos to learn how to insert breathing tubes. Researchers rely on donated human body parts to develop new surgical instruments, techniques and implants; and to develop new medicines and treatments for diseases.

Yet — as we tried to explain and as Reuters so ably illustrates — what people think goes on with their loved one’s body and what actually happens can often be very different. Depending on your feelings about honoring the body of the deceased, the sheer physical brutality — reducing people to no more than meat in a butcher shop, as described above — can be enough to turn you off to the whole enterprise. Beyond that, though, is the tweaking of the very concept of a “gift.” If you give me a one-of-a-kind family heirloom as a gift — say a vase handed down through generations — and I turn around the same day and sell it for a nice profit, you might later ask, “Where did that vase go?” If I tell you I sold it and actually don’t really even know where it ultimately wound up, you would have every right to be upset.

As Ron signaled in his subject line, little has changed since we first started publishing our stories 18 years ago. If you read the Reuters series — and you should — you fill find a lot of the same themes that ran through our stories.

People make comparisons to 18th century grave robbers.

Each body part has a price.

There is no system for ensuring that diseases are not being spread via the body parts.

The companies involved say they are not selling, merely charging fees for services.

The body brokers themselves say that there should be more regulations.

Families who donate sometimes find that they received someone else’s ashes — or even sand — in return.

And, as is often the case with underground markets, the people who go into the business have troubled pasts. Reuters wrote:

Southern Nevada’s owner, Joe Collazo, had a decade’s experience selling body parts. Court records show he also served nearly two years in prison in the late 1990s for forgery. And a former employer once accused him in a lawsuit of stealing donated body parts valued at $75,000 and selling them to a customer in Turkey. Collazo said his forgery conviction is irrelevant and the theft allegation untrue. His business followed industry best practices, he said, and served an important public service to the medical community.

As a reporter who was quite proud of how much light we brought to the body parts industry, I was actually quite depressed at the end of the Reuters series. It’s clear that our work made some impact. When we did our reporting there were very few documents for us to gather because so little tracking was done. State regulations allowed Reuters to gain access to a range of records that documented their series. And it seems that some of the most upstanding members of the industry are now more transparent about how they do their work.

But the industry also has morphed, meaning there are many, many new discoveries made by Reuters. I will explore those in my next post.