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Cremator Sentenced to 20 Years

Owner of Lake Elsinore crematorium illegally sold parts from about 130 bodies. He says he's remorseful, but victims' relatives lash out at him.

October 04, 2003|Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writer

The owner of a Lake Elsinore crematorium who cut off and illegally sold heads, torsos and other parts from an estimated 133 bodies he was supposed to cremate was sentenced to 20 years in state prison Friday.

Michael Francis Brown, who sold the body parts without family members' knowledge to university hospitals and medical laboratories, earlier had pleaded guilty to 66 counts of unlawful mutilation. Investigators have not yet identified all of the remains found at the crematorium.

Brown "fell victim in his own mind to the demon of instant riches," said Riverside County Superior Court Judge Rodney L. Walker.

The judge listened to family members testify about what the crime meant to them before passing sentence.

Ruth Ann Storr of San Diego said she was deeply disturbed that her 82-year-old mother "was cut up and sold like a pot roast."

"I wonder who's in my mother's urn," she said. "A dog? Cigar ashes?"

Brown, 44, was handcuffed and taken into custody by Riverside County sheriff's deputies after Walker announced the sentence. The separated father of two was also fined $10,000, and ordered to pay restitution to his victims.

An insurance company representing Pacific Cremation Care, Brown's now-defunct company, has paid an estimated $1.25 million to the families of eight victims, said Richard Layon, Brown's attorney.

"I am deeply remorseful," Brown said in brief remarks to the judge. "I built this business based on dignity and trust. [This] was not what I constructed. It was not my dream. It was not what we set out to do.... At some point, I turned right, not left. If I could undo it, I would."

Riverside County prosecutors alleged that Brown, operating through another company he created, Biotech Anatomical, took advantage of the lack of regulation in the body-parts industry by selling the bodies he had falsely described as willed for medical research.

Prosecutor Karen Gorham said Brown netted about $465,000 from 1999 to 2001.

Brown was arrested in February 2001.

News of the body-part sales shocked relatives of the dead victims. Some were told of their link to Brown's case only last month.

Storr and several others either addressed Walker before sentencing or sent letters read by prosecutors.

Many family members in the crowd wept during the statements. Brown never looked at them, staring directly ahead instead.

Regina Walsh wrote that she was forced to renew the grieving process over her husband's death when she was informed of the mutilations and was asked to identify her husband.

Walsh said she identified him when taken to see his severed, frozen head.

"I know [Brown] will rot in hell for this," said Michael Ziegler, uncle of a 34-year-old woman whose body parts were illegally sold.

"My hope is he rots in jail for a long time before he gets there."

Layon said Brown can help identify other remains and correct mistaken identities but won't until prosecutors promise not to charge him with other crimes.

Daniel Schonberger, a former employee of Brown's, pleaded guilty to one count of unlawful mutilation after Brown's sentencing. He and another employee will be sentenced next month.

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