Two years ago, in a case that garnered international attention, Ernest V. Nelson was arrested and accused of being a middleman in a scheme to sell body parts from corpses donated to UCLA's medical school.
Now, Nelson, who has not been charged with a crime, is seeking to clear his name: writing his memoirs, helping lawyers suing the school and filing his own suit against University of California regents and the police officers who arrested him.
And today, he's set to appear on MSNBC's "Rita Cosby Live & Direct" to discuss the role of "body brokers."
"It's the American way," Nelson, 48, said of his desire to sell his story. "I have to do something to try to turn a negative into something positive."
UCLA police and prosecutors, criticized by a judge last year for the "glacial" speed of their investigation, said their probe isn't finished.
"It's a complicated investigation," said UCLA police spokeswoman Nancy Greenstein, whose department more commonly handles such crimes as stolen bicycles and underage drinking. "In the end, people will see that there was substance."
Jane Robison, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, said nothing has been formally turned over to prosecutors as evidence for criminal charges. She said the statute of limitations has not run out on possible crimes.
Because of the uncertainty, Nelson said, he hasn't been able to find work since the scandal broke.
"The mere fact that they've been investigating, quote unquote, for the last two years tells you that there's nothing there in the first place," said Nelson, who now lives outside Dallas in a house owned by his mother-in-law.
He was arrested March 7, 2004, on suspicion of receiving stolen property. That same day, he acknowledged in an interview that, twice a week, he had gone to UCLA's body freezer on the seventh floor of UCLA Medical Center with saw in hand to disassemble bodies. He said he was collecting knees, hands, torsos and other body parts needed for medical research by his corporate clients, which he said numbered between 80 and 100.
Raised in Arkansas, Nelson has said he helped his godparents run a string of funeral parlors. At age 12, he collected trash, cleaned toilets and dug graves.
Though no criminal case has been filed, donors' families continue to file civil complaints.
In a procedural ruling last week, however, Superior Court Judge Carolyn B. Kuhl struck down most of the plaintiffs' claims against UCLA and the companies accused of purchasing body parts from the school. Other claims contained in the lawsuits were allowed to advance.
In one case, filed last Monday, lawyers are seeking damages on behalf of 26 relatives of people who donated their bodies to UCLA for research. Defendants include the UC regents and UCLA, along with Johnson & Johnson and NuVasive Inc., both of which are alleged to have purchased body parts from Nelson. All have previously denied wrongdoing.
The suit's most explosive allegation is that UCLA cremated the bodies of African American or dark-skinned donors, never using them for research "because of the color of their skin." Dale Tate, a UCLA spokeswoman, flatly denied that charge.
Barry Himmelstein, a San Francisco lawyer who filed the suit, said Nelson helped provide a road map for the case.
"He is, without a doubt, the single most important witness," Himmelstein said.
Nelson said he was cooperating with plaintiffs because he believes that UCLA has been lying to donors' families and the news media.
Also named as defendants are Nelson and Henry Reid, an embalmer who was director of UCLA's willed-body program. Reid was arrested in March 2004 on suspicion of grand theft, but he also has not been charged with a crime.
Reid's lawyer, Melvyn Sacks, has denied allegations against his client and said he was waiting for the police to wrap up their investigation.
"Until they tell me that they've concluded it and they're not going to charge him, he's not out of the woods," Sacks said.
"The longer it goes, it shows that they're having trouble figuring out what he's done wrong," he added.
Separately, Nelson filed a lawsuit last week against UCLA police and three officers, alleging false imprisonment, assault and battery, and intentional infliction of emotional distress during his arrest at his former home in Rancho Cucamonga.
He said officers broke down an entry gate, dragged his then-14-year-old daughter from her room at gunpoint, used pepper spray to subdue his dogs and watched as his wife and daughter used the restroom.
"During their eight hours in the home that day, the police officers trashed the home, broke personal items, ate food anywhere they pleased and generally treated the home with disrespect," the lawsuit alleges.
Nelson was detained briefly then released on $30,000 bond.
Greenstein of UCLA police declined to comment, saying she had not seen the lawsuit.
The willed-body program, which provides cadavers for dissection by medical and dental students and researchers, reopened last fall under court supervision and new rules.
The new measures include implanting glass transmitters -- as tiny as a rice grain -- in body parts. The chips can send out radio signals, allowing the parts to be tracked by computer from the time bodies are donated until they are disposed of.