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Man Says He Sold UCLA's Cadavers

March 08, 2004|Charles Ornstein and Richard Marosi | Times Staff Writers

An alleged middleman in the sale of body parts from corpses donated to UCLA medical school said Sunday night that he cut up about 800 cadavers with the full knowledge of UCLA officials and then sold them to "giant" medical research companies over a six-year period.

An attorney for UCLA, Louis Marlin, offered a very different account of the case. He said that the middleman, Ernest V. Nelson, had carried out the scheme with the help of Henry Reid, the director of the medical school's willed body program, and a second university employee. Other university officials had no knowledge of it, Marlin said.

The scheme came to light because Nelson tried to get money from the university after already extracting payments from Reid to keep the scheme secret, said Marlin.

Nelson was arrested at his home in Rancho Cucamonga on Sunday on suspicion of receiving stolen property. After posting $30,000 bond at the Los Angeles County sheriff's West Hollywood station, Nelson told The Times that his work was well known to officials at UCLA and had been condoned.

Nelson, 46, said he went to UCLA's body freezer on the seventh floor of UCLA Medical Center twice a week with saw in hand and disassembled bodies.

He said he was collecting knees, hands, torsos and other body parts needed by his corporate clients, which he said numbered between 80 and 100.

Nelson also said he followed a protocol set out by Reid that was known to other UCLA officials.

"I call one of the most prestigious universities in the world, their director gives me the protocol, I follow that protocol and they charge me with receiving stolen body parts?" Nelson said. "If I wasn't supposed to be there, why couldn't they tell me that? It was not done in secret."

Reid, 54, was arrested Saturday on suspicion of grand theft. He was released early Sunday after posting $20,000 bond. Reid declined to answer a reporter's questions Sunday.

In rebutting Nelson's account, Marlin, the UCLA attorney, said Nelson had been paying for the body parts with cashier's checks made out to Reid, not the university.

Marlin also said Nelson's figure of 800 bodies was exaggerated. "It's impossible, because then UCLA would have had no bodies to use," he said. "What the number is, we're going to find out to the best we can."

Marlin said he had no idea what the actual figure was because the campus was still investigating, but added that the true figure may be in the dozens or even hundreds. The sales covered a four-year period, not six, he said.

The UCLA lawyer also played down Nelson's contention that campus officials knew about the sale of body parts. "For Nelson to say that other people knew what he was doing is ridiculous," he said. "They actively were hiding this."

The chain of events that led to the unraveling of the scheme began last year when state regulators began looking into Nelson's work as part of an investigation of a Riverside County crematory. Marlin said UCLA was alerted to a potential problem when the state Department of Health Services contacted the campus. State officials said Nelson had been selling body parts, falsely representing to his clients that the bodies had been tested for infectious diseases at UCLA.

Marlin said he believes that Nelson was forging forms to satisfy his clients' wishes. At that time, Marlin said, Dr. J. Thomas Rosenthal, associate vice chancellor of the medical school, asked Reid what had happened. Reid responded that he had sold "a very small number" of body parts to Nelson. "According to Henry [Reid], Ernest Nelson told him that he was purchasing these parts, or obtaining these parts for ... an orthopedist doing research. This is what Henry Reid told me also," Marlin said.

Reid said he was arranging for the body parts to be returned, and officials saw no reason to investigate further, Marlin said.

Nelson said UCLA then stopped allowing him to take body parts and asked him to return the parts he already had in his warehouse. The university owed him hundreds of thousands of dollars for the body parts he had returned, Nelson said. Earlier this year, Nelson's lawyer filed a claim for $241,000, which amounted to the value of the body parts, Marlin said. When the campus received that claim, officials immediately began investigating, he said.

On Feb. 26, Reid was called in for an interview and broke down, telling campus lawyers that he had received payment for the sale of body parts, Marlin said. "I said, 'Henry, what's the total amount of money that this guy gave you?' and he says to me, 'Between $15,000 and $20,000.' My head's reeling now. We have a lot of money on the table."

Marlin said he immediately notified police and had Reid put on administrative leave. Another UCLA employee who is believed to have accepted money for body parts also was placed on leave.

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