The Better Body Broker Business Bureau

Frankenstein in both theme and aesthetic

At some point last year I tried a recipe I found online for a mushroom and Gorgonzola cheese risotto. It came out okay, but my wife has a much higher tolerance for intense pungent cheeses than I do so we ended up with a bunch of leftovers. I packed them into a Tupperware container and put them on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator, which is what I do when I feel too guilty to waste leftover food by throwing it away but also would like to never have to deal with or otherwise think about that food ever again, thank you very much (It’s the refrigerator version of when your computer tells you it has some updates to download and you tell it, “Remind me tomorrow,” every single day from then on, for as long as you own the computer). The Tupperware container full of fermenting Gorgonzola sat there in the fridge until we moved out of that apartment, in February of this year. We just threw the whole thing away, container and all. It’s not the most responsible way I could have handled things, but also, who gives a shit? It’s just risotto.

Stephen Gore, the former owner of the now-defunct Biological Resource Center Inc., would have probably agreed with me. Gore’s business accepted cadaver donations and provided those bodies to medical and academic facilities for scientific or educational purposes, acting as a sort of corpse concierge. These facilities often didn’t need full cadavers, so Gore would cremate any unused remains and return them to the donors’ families. At least, this was the sales pitch that Gore would give to prospective donors. The reality was a little more like that refrigerator full of risotto that you’re only now dealing with because you don’t want to lose your security deposit.

When the FBI raided Biological Resource Center Inc.’s Phoenix, Arizona facility in 2014 in response to allegations the Center was selling body parts for profit, they found a fucking nightmare warehouse full of carnage and screams. Seriously, here’s what federal agents saw inside, according to testimony provided by one FBI agent in an ongoing civil suit, from a Business Insider article:

-A “bucket of heads, arms, and legs.”

-A “cooler filled with male genitalia.”

-A woman’s head sewn onto a larger male’s torso, like “Frankenstein,” hanging on a wall.

-”Infected heads.” It’s not entirely clear what this means.

-Bodies that had been cut up with chainsaws and bandsaws. The bodies didn’t have ID tags.

-”Pools of human blood and other bodily fluids” on the freezer floor.

There’s a lot to take in here. First, this is obviously my favorite found poem of all time. Also, what does he mean by “filled” with male genitalia? How big was the cooler? How big were the genitalia? Also, am I the only pedantic dork who thinks it’s pretty funny that this story is about a man who exploited his knowledge of anatomical medicine in a crazed aspiration to feel like a god, only to abandon his work to neglect and decay when that work became too challenging, all of this being a perfect thematic encapsulation of Mary Shelley’s novel, but most people haven’t even seen the 1931 Frankenstein film, let alone read the work of literature it’s based on, so all the reporting only makes the surface-level human taxidermy analogy? Also, what do we think, about 60 severed penises fit in a standard beach cooler? 75? Just trying to establish a control group here.

This was understandably the end of Biological Resource Center Inc. The business shut down after the FBI raid, and in October 2015, Stephen Gore (I can’t believe that’s his name either) pleaded guilty to illegally conducting an enterprise. According to this Arizona Central article, he was sentenced to four years of probation and a deferred sentence of one year in jail, which he didn’t have to serve because of good behavior. Unfortunately, the article fails to clarify the full spectrum of behavior that would qualify as “good,” relative to his previous behavior. 

In a letter to Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Warren Granville before his December 2015 sentencing, Gore wrote that he felt overwhelmed, but that he was working in an industry with “no formal regulations” to reference for guidance.

“I could have been more open about the process of donation on the brochure we put in public view,” Gore wrote. “When deciding which donors could be eligible to donate, I should have hired a medical director rather than relying on medical knowledge from books or the internet…”

It sounds obscene in its minimization, like Jeffrey Dahmer writing a letter admitting that yeah, he probably could have put in a little more effort to ethically source his collection of hand-painted human skulls. However, as much as it sucks to admit it, Gore does sort of have a point about that lack of regulations.

In 2004, a federal health advisory panel convened in response to reports of misconduct within the body broker industry. They called for stricter regulations, urging the U.S. government to apply the same oversight standards we already have in place for organ transplantation. The U.S. government, however, decided to take more of a libertarian-type “let the market decide” approach to things. 

“Asked about the federal panel’s 2004 call to regulate body brokers, a U.S. Health and Human Services Department spokesperson said the agency was under ‘no obligation’ to accept the recommendation,” according to this article from Reuters. “How and whether to police the industry, spokesman Martin Kramer added, is left to each state.” And if you thought that pathetic “state’s rights” dereliction of duty horseshit was infuriating when it was applied to reproductive health laws or public education budgets, just wait’ll you read this:

Most states [...] don’t regulate body brokers closely, or at all. In those states, a broker may legally sell a cadaver or its parts, such as heads and arms, so long as the remains are not intended for transplantation. Only 10 states provide any oversight. Just a handful require licensing or disclosure.

[…]

For example, Virginia and Florida regulators need to give advance permission before a broker may bring body parts into the state for research or training. In Oklahoma and Oregon, regulators do not require prior approval to ship individual body parts, but they do inspect brokers regularly and require stringent record-keeping.

In two of the 10 states, the laws do not appear to be a high priority. In New Jersey, an official said, a 2008 law restricting the business to nonprofits and requiring brokers to register with health authorities hasn’t been implemented, because the legislature failed to authorize funds. In Maine, a state spokesman said that although the law requires brokers to be registered, officials haven’t bothered to create rules because no one has ever applied for a permit.

The article goes on to say that New York actually has the best regulation guidelines in the industry, requiring records and inspections from brokers in every state, not just those in New York. But honestly, who can afford to start a body broker business in New York these days anyway? You’d be paying way too much just to share some shitty Bushwick loft with four other body broker businesses, watching the subways go to shit because the body broker corporations in Albany that set the MTA budget never use it and don’t care. Better to be a body broker somewhere up-and-coming with a lower cost of living, like maybe Austin or Kansas City.

In the interest of full disclosure I should probably mention that I’m not really in a position to judge anyone else’s work conduct. When I was 15 I got fired from my very first job at a nursing home (Technically I was asked to resign) for laughing when a mean old lady screamed “Suck my ass” at me. At another job, instead of doing my work I would use the computer to work a totally separate remote part-time job and also watch every episode of every prestige cable drama I could find on Megaupload. At another job I stole holiday cards I found around the office and cut out the pictures of strangers’ kids, taped them up at my desk in a weird shrine, and insisted they were all my children whenever anyone asked. I guess what I’m saying is that on some level I can relate to Stephen Gore. Some of us just aren’t cut out for regular office jobs. But at least I never Frankensteined any corpses.

Then again, maybe sewing a woman’s severed head to the neck of a larger man’s torso and hanging it on the wall like it’s a workplace motivational poster is not the huge deal I’m making it out to be. According to Philip Guyett, a former body broker himself, there’s a reasonable explanation for all of this. Here he is, rationalizing to Business Insider:

“If I knew that a family wanted their ashes back, I’d be doing limited recovery [of internal organs or tissues] so that they would get 90% of that bone ash back.

[But] these other people, they take everything. They’ll take the arms, the shoulders, the spine, the hip, and basically all the family would be left with is maybe a cup’s worth of ashes from a leftover rib cage or something.

So I think the family wanted the ashes back, and [the Biological Resource Center] took some body parts that they didn’t have to get back, just to make up the volume.

That would be my assumption because there’s no other reason to go through that work of trying to put the body parts back together again.

See? Stephen Gore was merely committing compassionate fraud when he violated the remains of his trusting donors by sewing their mangled body parts together! He just didn’t want to be asked where he illegally sold the rest of Grandma’s body, it’s not like he’s some kind of pervert. Thankfully, Philip Guyett finished his stint in federal prison for falsifying the medical records of infected cadavers that he was selling for transplant in time to butt in with his not-reassuring-at-all seasoned insider’s perspective.

This gross, sad story really feels bottomless. Every time you think you’ve plumbed the depths and excavated the last of the appalling details you find another leaking cooler full of severed dicks down there that everyone seems to have overlooked. Reading about Stephen Gore led me not only to Philip “Desecration Truther” Guyett, but also to Arthur Rathburn, yet another body broker who’s facing his own federal investigation for allegedly sending HIV- and hepatitis-infected body parts to medical facilities, dismembering donor bodies with a chainsaw, and lacking any paperwork that would prove his bodies had been willingly donated. And then there’s the fact that Gore’s warehouse of horrors was in Maricopa County, where then-Sheriff Joe Arpaio was infamously bringing back prisoner chain gangs, overseeing a tent city jail he proudly called a concentration camp, and deputizing fucking Steven Seagal to prove how tough on crime he was. Gore had his prison sentence deferred for good behavior, but if you were convicted of shoplifting in Maricopa County that same year you probably ended up serving time in the tent city, sweating in 130°F heat and eating Nutraloaf for your two meals a day. It’s just an endless cavalcade of staggeringly grim additional details to a story that was already pretty terrible, like if I waited until now to tell you that I was trying to eat healthy last year and that the risotto from the opening paragraph was actually a months-old cauliflower rice Gorgonzola cheese risotto, and now you have to think about how much worse that smelled than the already really awful smell you were previously imagining.

It’s all a lot to process, but someone in an official capacity is going to have to deal with it eventually. Finally implementing the fifteen year old recommendations of a federal health advisory panel would probably be a good start. The longer we leave the problem unaddressed, steadily ripening in a Tupperware container on the bottom shelf of the fridge, the harder it’s going to be when we actually get around to doing something about it.