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Trial opens in lawsuit over ‘Frankenstein’ use of remains

PHOENIX — A retired FBI agent described a horrific raid of a now-closed body donation facility Monday, recalling a table stacked with severed human legs, heads stuffed in a cooler, and torsos without heads and limbs.

Mark Cwynar testified on the opening day of a civil trial that one torso had its head removed and a smaller head sewn on, comparing the discovery to a character from Frankenstein.

The relatives of 23 people whose remains were donated to the Biological Resource Center contend in a lawsuit that the facility mishandled their deceased loved ones and misled them about how the remains would be used. The lawsuit alleges the facility committed fraud by claiming the donated bodies would be used for medical research, when in at least two cases it knew the human remains would be sold for use in destructive military testing.

The lawsuit also alleges that donor families who were promised the cremated remains of relatives received boxes with what they thought were their loved ones, but later discovered the bodies were sold to third parties or were still at the facility.

They are seeking unspecified damages.

Some FBI employees who wore hazardous material suits and breathed through respirators during a 2014 raid of the facility had to undergo counseling, Cwynar said. “I personally observed several individuals emotionally upset. Some individuals refused to go back into the scene,” he testified, noting other evidence-collection workers had to be called in.

Cadaver donation companies distribute remains to universities, medical device manufacturers and drug companies. The companies pay the associated costs and use the bodies for medical education and research, and families save burial or cremation costs.

Company owner Stephen Douglas Gore pleaded guilty in October 2015 to a felony charge for his role in mishandling donated body parts.

Though Gore has denied the allegations in the lawsuit, he acknowledged when pleading guilty that his company provided vendors with human tissue that was contaminated and used the donations in ways that went against the wishes of the donors.

In a letter to the sentencing judge, Gore said he should have been more involved in the supervision of his employees and could have been more open about the donation process on his company’s brochure.

During opening statements Monday, Gore attorney Timothy O’Connor said the facility’s clients signed consent forms granting permission to dissect donated bodies, and that it was legal for the facility to make a profit.

“Every single donor or a family member signed one of these consent forms,” O’Connor said.

Gwendolyn Aloia, whose husband’s remains were donated after his 2013 cancer death, said she was initially impressed by the facility’s professionalism and, for a while, was confident the donation for medical research purposes was a good thing.

But she lost her confidence when she saw TV news coverage of the raid, she said. “I thought they were on the up and up — that things were sanitary, for starters. Then there are all these people in hazmat suits.”

Attorney David TeSelle, who represents the families who filed the lawsuit, told jurors the facility promised donor families their relatives’ remains would be used for medical research and treated with respect and dignity.

TeSelle said the families weren’t told the bodies would be cut up, sold to third parties for profit and used in ways that the families wouldn’t have approved of. He showed jurors the business’ price list, noting a torso without a head went for $4,000.

“This is a case about honesty, dignity and respect owed to a loved one,” TeSelle said.

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