Inside UCLA's Cadaver Scandal

The Willed Body Program at UCLA's School of Medicine was the first of its kind in the nation—a university office specifically set up to house and preserve corpses donated by the public to foster medical research. Founded in 1950, the program helps med students learn all-important lessons of anatomy—and provides doctors an invaluable testing ground for cutting-edge procedures that, once perfected on the corpses, can more safely be tried on humans. So it came as a bit of a shock when the leader of UCLA's prestigious outfit was implicated in a scandal involving slicing up the bodies and selling them off illegally. This week, following a three-year investigation, prosecutors in Los Angeles charged program director Henry G. Reid—along with Ernest V. Nelson, an outside supplier of human tissue to medical companies—with conspiring to conceal and profit from the sale of hundreds of body parts. Each man is being held on $1 million bail—a figure roughly equal, authorities say, to the value of the human remains they allegedly sold.

The program went off the rails in 1999, according to prosecutors, two years after Reid, a former embalmer, took over. In the indictment, prosecutors contend that Reid, now 57, allowed Nelson, 49, to harvest hundreds of body parts from the huge refrigerated facility on the seventh floor of the UCLA Medical Center without filling out the proper paperwork that would have tipped UCLA officials to their disappearance—or paying the required fees to the university. Instead, prosecutors say Nelson sold the body parts to 20 clients, and paid not UCLA but Reid personally, first in the form of $43,000 in cashier's checks, then in cash.

Authorities became suspicious in 2003, after a state health investigator noticed what looked like falsified blood tests for shipments to one San Diego medical-device company. UCLA officials questioned Reid, who then asked Nelson to return some of the body parts to UCLA. In a macabre twist, Nelson "returned several bags of body parts to UCLA" in June of that year—and then threatened to sue the university if he weren't reimbursed more than $241,000. The subsequent investigation revealed that "a large number of bodies could not be accounted for," according to the indictment. The pair were first arrested in March 2003, then released on bail and rearrested when charges were filed this week. (The university suspended the program when the scandal broke; Reid resigned). If convicted on all counts Reid faces five years, eight months in prison, and Nelson, who has additional tax charges, more than seven.

Both men have long insisted that they broke no laws. "Mr. Reid is as much a victim as UCLA," says Melvyn Sacks, Reid's criminal attorney—who calls Nelson "a master thief." Nelson has no criminal-defense attorney yet, but has repeatedly disputed claims that his business was illicit. He did eventually sue the university for breach of contract and defamation over the $241,000 for the parts he returned in 2003. It's hardly the act of a guilty man, says his civil attorney, Thomas Brill. "Mr. Nelson has been very forthcoming and he did not believe he had done anything wrong," Brill told Newsweek. Nelson certainly did nothing to conceal his frequent daytime visits to the seventh-floor refrigeration chamber, where the cadavers were hung by the ears in orderly rows by metal rods. Standing 6-foot-3, and with a shaved head, he was a striking presence and he routinely passed in and out of security checkpoints with his knives and saws and an Igloo cooler, which he filled with human remains.

While the case moves forward, the Willed Body Program is trying to put itself back together. The scandal took a toll; the program, which attracted an average of 175 cadavers annually, according to one med school official, has had to work to restore trust with the public. Roughly 260 potential donors who had promised their bodies to science pulled out, according to the university—though it is impossible to say whether all of them were reacting to the negative publicity. Officials reopened the program in 2005 with more transparency and many more safeguards designed to prevent rogue staffers from hiding dubious practices, says Brandi Schmitt, a University of California official currently serving as the UCLA program's interim director. Criminal and financial background checks are now mandatory for staffers. All records are kept not only at UCLA but throughout the University of California system. In an ongoing pilot program at UCLA, cadavers and body parts are all tagged with radio frequency identification devices. The hope is that it would help stymie potential thieves. "This will help us to prevent improper activity from occurring," says Schmitt, who warns that since "the nature of the criminal mind is to get around things," no system can be perfect.

But one other change now marks a bright line between the Reid-Nelson era and the present. Under the new rules, no cadaver or body part can be sold or even sent to any other institution or company. Period. If UCLA can enforce that rule, the Willed Body Program may become whole again.