DA: Man Pocketed $1.5M in Body Parts-for-Cash Scheme

A man accused of buying and reselling human body parts donated to a university medical school reaped about $1.5 million in the scheme with the director of the cadaver program, a prosecutor said Wednesday.

Deputy District Attorney Marisa Zarate told jurors the actions of Ernest Nelson, who ran a business transporting body parts to hospitals and medical research companies, contributed to the scandal that tarnished the reputation of the willed body program at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Nelson and Henry Reid, then the director of the program, devised the scam in 1999, Zarate said during her opening statement at the trial.

"That's when the willed body program became derailed," she said. "They could profit by joining forces."

Nelson, 51, of Rancho Cucamonga has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to commit grand theft, grand theft by embezzlement and tax evasion.

Defense attorney Sean McDonald told jurors his client ran a reputable business and came across a corrupt director in Reid and a program that was in disarray.

The lawyer said Nelson's payments to Reid were legitimate, and there was no conspiracy between the two men, as prosecutors allege.

"The problem is that Henry Reid wasn't forwarding the money to UCLA, he was pocketing it," McDonald said. "Henry Reid did this on himself."

Reid previously pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit grand theft and was sentenced to more than four years in prison.

Under his plea deal, other charges were dismissed.

Nelson has said he believed he was acting under UCLA authorization when he bought the donated torsos, which he cut up and kept frozen in a rented warehouse until they were sold.

Zarate described Nelson as a middle man who paid Reid a total of $43,000 for the remains. To help cover the scheme, Reid wrote a letter saying Nelson was authorized to release human parts, Zarate said.

However, the plan unraveled after a state health investigator became concerned about a sale in 2003 and contacted the university.

Investigators discovered the proper paperwork wasn't filed when body parts were exchanged.

Reid and Nelson were arrested in 2004 then freed while the investigation continued.

The scandal led to the suspension of UCLA's cadaver program for a year in 2004 and forced the University of California system to examine its donation rules.

The school said it instituted procedures to prevent future abuses, including new donor forms and security and tracking systems for the bodies.

Founded in 1950, the program received about 175 donated bodies a year before it was suspended. It has received eight to 15 bodies a month since restarting in October 2005.

It was the second time in less than a decade that scandal swept the cadaver program.

In 1996, relatives of body donors alleged the program had illegally disposed of thousands of donated bodies, including dumping some remains in landfills.

A state appellate court ruled the plaintiffs had failed to prove the allegations.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
Contact Us