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UC Got Body Parts Warning a Year Ago

State health inspectors alerted officials about possible abuses at UCLA, documents show.

March 16, 2004|Charles Ornstein, Monte Morin | Times Staff Writers

State health inspectors alerted top University of California officials in February 2003 about possible misuse of donated cadavers at the UCLA School of Medicine, but a year passed before officials at the medical school looked into an alleged ring of body parts profiteers, according to state documents released Monday.

Correspondence given to The Times by the state Department of Health Services showed that its investigators had long been concerned about the activities of Ernest V. Nelson, a dealer in cadavers.

This month, UCLA police arrested Nelson on suspicion of receiving stolen goods and arrested Henry G. Reid, director of UCLA's willed body program, on suspicion of grand theft. University officials have said that Reid sold body parts to Nelson and that Nelson resold them for profit.

Nelson apparently charged three times the prices listed by the medical school when it sold body parts to researchers for cost, according to documents filed in court by UCLA police to get search warrants. Selling body parts for cost is legal; selling them for profit is not.

State investigators began looking into Nelson and his background when they received tips that he was fraudulently claiming that corpses had been screened for infectious diseases and that he was keeping human remains in his garage. Nelson told buyers that the body parts came from a UC willed body program, according to investigators. In February 2003, agency officials brought their concerns to University of California officials.

"Based on information that has been gathered in this inquiry, it appears that this individual may be misrepresenting an association with the University of California," wrote Tom Tempske, a laboratory examiner with the health department, in a Feb. 20, 2003, fax. Tempske asked for the UC system's help in determining if Nelson "now or ever has obtained cadaveric tissue from any of the UC willed body programs." State inspectors also met with UC system officials weeks later to discuss the matter.

UCLA officials have said, in light of those inquiries, that they questioned Reid about his association with Nelson, and that Reid produced a document showing that their interaction was minimal. UCLA officials also told health services investigators that they believed that the problem would not recur, because they had stopped sending body parts outside the university.

Lavonne Luquis, a spokeswoman for the UC system, said Monday that Reid promised to recover all of the body parts given to Nelson.

"The basic problem is that we essentially had a double agent working against us," Luquis said. Reid "enjoyed the trust of campus administrators. He was saying, 'I'm going to deal with this.' They had no reason to disbelieve him at that time."

Luquis said UC regents would discuss the matter Thursday.

"I'm sure in hindsight, a lot of people wish it had happened" differently, she said. "This at the time did not seem to merit anything beyond the attention it received."

The documents also revealed that UCLA police investigators had seized the cremated remains of 23 people who donated their bodies to science -- remains that some relatives were told had long since been scattered.

"Barbaric," said a woman who learned Monday that her husband's ashes had been seized in a series of raids.

The woman, who asked not to be identified, said she and her husband believed that donating his remains would serve science. "We felt it would do some good, but it wasn't helping science, it was helping a greedy individual with no conscience."

Search warrant documents revealed that a second employee of UCLA's program, Keith Lewis, told university lawyers that he had received money for helping Nelson cut up cadavers in UCLA Medical Center's seventh-floor refrigerator. Lewis, according to UCLA police, said that in one instance, he had prepared 10 heads for Nelson and that on two occasions he had received $1,000 to $2,000.

Lewis, who is on leave from UCLA, has not been accused of a crime. He has declined comment.

The state health agency first began looking into the misuse of cadavers in 2001 when it was investigating the alleged improper sale of remains by a Riverside County crematory operator. After the operator was arrested, Nelson's name arose as the person believed to be selling body parts to the crematory operator's former clients.

The state investigator looked into whether Nelson had sold 66 torsos from UCLA to a San Diego County company, NuVasive Inc., without testing them for infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis. The investigator found that the testing documents that had been given to NuVasive were fraudulent, according to affidavits

The investigator talked to Reid about Nelson, and Reid allegedly said that Nelson had planned to give the parts to an orthopedic surgeon for research. Reid, learning that the bodies hadn't been tested, told the investigator that he would cut ties with Nelson.

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