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Sale of Body Parts at UCLA Alleged

March 06, 2004|Charles Ornstein | Times Staff Writer

Two UCLA employees have been placed on leave amid a criminal investigation into allegations that they stole body parts from cadavers donated to the medical school and sold them for personal gain, school officials and others familiar with the investigation said Friday.

People familiar with the case said it probably involved dozens of cadavers donated to the school's willed body program over a period of five years. If so, it would dwarf previous scandals involving the sale of cadaver parts at other medical centers around the country.

Authorities, who first became aware of problems Feb. 26, said they are trying to determine the full extent of the alleged wrongdoing and potential charges.

The UCLA program, established in 1950 as the first of its kind in the nation, receives about 175 donated bodies each year and makes cadavers available for medical education and research.

The university is still enmeshed in a lawsuit filed in 1996 involving a previous scandal over the way cadavers had been disposed of for several decades.

UCLA School of Medicine officials released few details Friday other than to confirm that the two employees had been placed on leave and that a criminal investigation had been launched.

"We are cooperating fully with the [UCLA] Police Department," which is conducting the investigation," Dr. J. Thomas Rosenthal, associate vice chancellor of the medical school, said Friday in a statement to The Times.

He went on to say the university would "share more information as soon as police assure us it will not jeopardize their investigation. At this stage, we must do nothing to undermine the integrity of the investigation, and we will announce additional details in the near future."

Rosenthal promised in the statement to be "completely forthcoming" at the "earliest possible time."

Former Gov. George Deukmejian has agreed to take on the job of overseeing reform of the program, Rosenthal said in an interview. Rosenthal has taken over control of the program on a temporary basis to ensure it continues functioning, the physician said.

Nancy Greenstein, director of police community services for the UCLA Police Department, said her agency is working intensively on the case. UCLA police have the same authority under the law as municipal police officers.

Sandy Gibbons, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, said Friday evening that she did not believe her agency had yet been informed of the situation.

The previous scandal involving UCLA's willed body program broke in 1993, when hazardous medical waste was discovered inside boxes of cremated human remains. A funeral-at-sea operator said the debris included broken parts of syringes, glass vials, clumps of used gauze and a rubber glove.

At the time, UCLA acknowledged that the cremated remains were from the university's willed body program. An official confirmed that materials such as needles had been mixed in with ashes -- something he said "should not happen."

In 1996, lawyers representing relatives of people whose bodies had been donated to the program sued UCLA's medical school and the University of California regents, charging that the willed body program had illegally disposed of thousands of donated bodies since the 1950s. They also claimed that bodies stuffed with medical waste were packed into the university's on-site crematorium several at a time. The lawsuit is pending.

Told by a reporter about the latest allegations, Mike Arias, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said he was shocked. UCLA lawyers had recently convinced the judge in the case that the school had fixed problems in the willed body program and did not need judicial oversight, he said.

"To have the defendants make representations that their program since 1996 has been a model -- and that they've complied with all these state regulations and all the procedural requirements.... To find out this is happening is utterly amazing," Arias said.

Louis Marlin, an attorney for UCLA, said many of the plaintiffs' claims had been previously dismissed. But he acknowledged that the latest developments would probably have an effect on the 1996 case.

Problems with willed body programs have also plagued other medical schools.

In 1999, UC Irvine fired Christopher Brown, the director of its willed body program, amid suspicions that he had improperly sold spines from cadavers to an Arizona research program. The buyers paid $5,000 to a company owned by a business associate of Brown. An audit released in December 2000 found that Brown had misappropriated money and tried to cover it up.

The audit confirmed that donated cadavers had been used without university permission in a private anatomy class in the willed body morgue and that families may have received the wrong remains or been improperly billed for the return of their relatives' ashes.

The former director denied wrongdoing.

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