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CHICAGO – Instead of a fancy casket and burial service, Cathy Senderak had other plans for her husband when he passed away in December.
Joseph Senderak had suffered from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and amyloidosis, a rare lung disease that made his breathing so difficult he kept an oxygen tank in the house.
Because her husband's health deteriorated so quickly, the Chicago-area mother of three grown boys made sure she understood his wishes for his final resting place.
“He wanted his body donated to science,” she said, standing over her kitchen table that she turned into a memorial to him. Framed photographs from their marriage are carefully displayed among his collections of fossils, science magazines and tiny jars filled with sand from around the world.
Joseph Senderak loved science so much, she said, that he hoped medical students could learn from the diseases that killed him. She was confident donating his body to Biological Resource Center of Illinois was the perfect decision.But in the last six months, she's had a fast education in the unregulated and often lucrative body part industry.
Now, she says everything about that decision was wrong.
Weeks after her husband passed away, the FBI contacted Senderak to tell her Biological Resource Center of Illinois, the for-profit body donation service where she donated her husband’s body, was the subject of a multi-state fraud investigation involving similar businesses in Michigan and Arizona.
In a federal search warrant affidavit dated Jan. 6, FBI agents accused Biological Resource Center of Illinois and Anatomical Service Incorporated, an earlier company owned by the same family, of multiple offenses: selling body parts infected with HIV, hepatitis, sepsis and other diseases for use by unwitting doctors and researchers; taking body parts from people who gave clear commands that they did not want their bodies donated; and making false statements to donors and families about how and where bodies would be used.
As Cathy Senderak watched the FBI haul bodies and parts away from the company offices on the TV news, she couldn’t help but wonder what had become of her husband’s body. She'd been told that it had been cremated after researchers had finished their study and that she would get his ashes in the mail any day.
But the FBI had other news for her.
They had recovered Joseph Senderak’s remains during a search at Biological Resource Center of Illinois. Soon after though, the ashes came, as promised. How could her husband’s remains be in two places at once? She was horrified at the idea that her husband had been dismembered.
“I was just sick to think about something like that happening,” Cathy Senderak said. “I thought we were doing something good for the medical society, and here these people turn into – I don’t know what you call it – craziness.”
She also worried about the body of her brother, Tom Hayes. She'd chosen Biological Resource Center of Illinois because that's where her sister-in-law, Linda Hayes, donated his body in 2013.
“I didn’t do any research,” said Linda Hayes, who also has a box of ashes that supposedly belong to her husband. “I just assumed that they were going to do what they were supposed to do – take the body, donate it to a school, and just be the go-between of people learning from his body.”
Linda Hayes said she signed authorization forms but does not remember seeing any information indicating the body could be dismembered.
“I would have noticed that … and I would have said no,” she said. “He didn’t want that. He wanted to stay together and help something, not have someone make a profit off his body.”
Her sister-in-law Cathy Senderak signed a consent form authorizing “extensive surgical preparation” of her husband’s body including “dissection or disarticulation” of his arms, legs, hands, feet, head, spine and other organs, but said the information was not clear and she did not receive any face-to-face counseling with a representative from Biological Resource Center of Illinois.
“I did not get the impression that the body was going to be segmented or sold or stored in some refrigerator for whatever length of time that they said,” she said.
The form she signed also indicated it was possible she would not receive all of her husband’s cremated remains at one time and that some might never be returned.
Biological Resource Center of Illinois' consent forms “plainly disclose that dissection and dismemberment are part of the donation process,” the company said in a statement through its Chicago attorneys Dan Fahner and Bob Stephenson of the Locke Lord law firm.
“If donors or their families inquire about the donation process at this level of detail, BRCIL would also provide the information to them,” they continued.
“The company is confident that if a family member asked if the donation process included dissection, disarticulation and ultimately destruction of a donor’s body, that question would have been properly answered and consistent with the consent paperwork that spells this information out,” the statement read.
But there may be another reason why family members like Cathy Senderak and Linda Hayes say they weren’t properly informed. According to the FBI, the company used misleading language in promotional materials sent to donor families, imitating vocabulary used in the field of nonprofit organ donation by referring to their services as tissue “placement” and “matching.” In a federal search warrant application, the FBI agent assigned to the case wrote that he “believes that the use of this language by BRCIL –when, in fact, body parts are sold outright for profit – is intended to mislead potential donors” and that “from this misrepresentation the next-of-kin did not believe the body parts could be sold.”
In the U.S., the trade in body parts not intended for transplant in another human is unregulated. The Uniform Anatomical Gift Act prevents the sale of human tissue and organs, but for-profit companies have been able to skirt those rules by charging fees associated with preparing, recovering and testing body parts. Some analysts have suggested the parts of one person's body could bring in thousands or tens of thousands of dollars.
When a loved one's remains are sent to a for-profit company, donor families usually pay nothing. Instead, it's the buyers – sometimes doctors, hospitals or universities – pay for parts from the companies that process donated bodies. (Families who donate bodies to nonprofit often pay some fees.)
According to the FBI, Biological Resource Center was making a profit on many of the donations it received by cutting up donated bodies and selling them to a middleman. Documents show body parts were shipped around the country for various uses, such as a head that went to a dentist practicing surgical techniques.
Attorneys for Biological Resource Center of Illinois said the company charges fees for tissue recovery, testing, preparation, disposition, quality control and storage of anatomical material as well as “other costs,” like return of the cremated remains to donor families.
“This practice is consistent with other transplant and non-transplant programs in the United States,” the attorneys said. “Additionally, this practice is consistent with the Illinois Anatomical Gift Act."
Making a profit on this type of donation is a problem if businesses aren't informing donors, said Paul Dudek, who runs Illinois’ Anatomical Gift Association. Unlike Biological Resource Center of Illinois, his organization is a nonprofit program that mostly supplies embalmed cadavers to medical schools.
Inside Dudek’s warehouse, a handful of workers receive bodies and send them out based on requests. In early May, the shelves were stacked with about 235 embalmed bodies wrapped in blue body bags.
Dudek said the donations to his organization have helped train 40,000 physicians and health care professionals. Regardless of where one donates his or her body, it's unlikely the body will remain fully intact, he said.
“It’s not a hack and cut sort of process,” he said, explaining that many times medical students are assigned to bodies that are donated through his organization. “When we do part a body…maybe [we’ll] send the torso to Northwestern for their breast reconstruction training program. We may send the brain to the Alzheimer’s program at Loyola.”
Dudek said his company's donor families receive all of their loved ones’ cremated remains at once, when the research on a donor’s body is completed. Often, medical schools hold a memorial service for donors that is attended by their families, he said.
Dudek said potential donors should fully research the organizations to which they are considering donating. While there are few rules and no government oversight for these types of donations, he said it would be important for donors and their families to be aware of all the possibilities and all of their options.
“'Buyer beware,' to a certain extent,” Dudek said. “I would research the heck out of them to find out who they are, where they are, what they do.”
According the company’s website, Biological Resource Center of Illinois or BRCIL, is co-owned by a father and son, both named Donald Greene. BRCIL merged in 2012 with another family-run company, Anatomical Services Inc., which also provided human cadaver parts for education and research.
The FBI accuses the companies of selling parts from dozens of cadavers that were contaminated with infectious diseases – including HIV, hepatitis B and C, sepsis and the superbug MRSA – while failing to disclose the information to buyers, leaving people who worked with the body parts at risk of exposure to disease.
One doctor told America Tonight that he would not have used a specimen had he known it was infected.
BRCIL supplied America Tonight with documents showing that on at least three occasions, one of its customers was aware of the infected bodies and signed an agreement to receive them anyway. But the company declined to comment on dozens of other cases, detailed by the FBI, of infected bodies that were sold under a different company name, Anatomical Services Inc.
Families still want answers
The FBI investigation into Biological Resource Center of Illinois has lasted for more than a year, but no charges have been filed.
Cathy Senderak and Linda Hayes say they've both contacted the company multiple times, but never received a full account of what happened to their husbands’ bodies.
Biological Resource Center of Illinois issued this statement in response:
Since the FBI executed a search warrant and took possession of BRCIL company documents, BRCIL has received many calls asking for information. BRCIL has attempted to answer each of these calls promptly, and as completely as possible under the circumstances. While BRCIL does not have full access to all company records, the company strives to answer all inquiries as they are received. BRCIL encourages any family members or loved ones with questions to contact us so we can attempt to answer any questions that people may have.
BRCIL has not been given an opportunity to review all of the FBI’s communications with individuals affected by this investigation so we are somewhat at a loss to explain what has or has not been explained by the government. BRCIL does have a robust policy in place that ensures donors’ cremated remains are properly maintained, tracked and eventually returned to loved ones if so requested. In some instances after the initial cremation process, BRCIL will receive cremated remains of the donor’s non-transplant anatomical materials after the material has been used for medical research or education. In that event, BRCIL would have a separate portion of a donor’s cremated remains.
Both women have put off distributing the ashes from their wooden boxes, for now. They’re not convinced the ashes even belong to their husbands.