Donors' Families Sue UCLA Over Cadaver Scandal

Shirley Williams had planned to donate her body to the University of California at Los Angeles after she died, just as her husband had done two years ago.

But allegations that some cadavers intended for medical research were sawed to pieces and the parts illegally sold for profit has caused her to change her mind.

"It's devastating," said Williams, of Thousand Oaks, whose husband's body was donated after he died from complications of a stroke. "I just find it so difficult that someone would put money higher than the use of these bodies for research."

Relatives of donors sued the university Monday, even as officials apologized and pledged to repair UCLA's cadaver program. UCLA (search) attorney Louis Marlin denied the university knew that donated bodies were being cut up and sold to others.

Family members claim university officials allowed the illegal traffic of body parts to go on, despite promises to clean up the program after revelations came to light in 1993 that remains were not disposed of as promised.

According to the lawsuit, relatives of donors were promised that after research had been completed, donated bodies would be "cremated and disposed of in a dignified manner" — which would often include the scattering of ashes in a cemetery rose garden.

Instead, the plaintiffs charged, family members will never know what happened to their loved ones' remains because bodies and body parts were sold to numerous organizations.

Attorneys representing family members were expected to seek an injunction from a judge Tuesday to stop the cadaver program. Monetary damages also are sought, but no figure was cited in the filing.

University officials admitted Monday that some body parts were sold but said they were only used for medical research. They did not elaborate on when the parts were sold or how many there may have been.

They also promised to revamp the cadaver program, saying they would appoint an interim director and conduct an independent audit led by former California Gov. George Deukmejian (search).

"These alleged crimes violate the trust of our donors, their families and UCLA," said Dr. Gerald Levey, a vice chancellor and dean of UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine (search).

The university's Willed Body Program has been under scrutiny since the weekend arrests of its director, Henry Reid, and Ernest V. Nelson, who allegedly helped sell the body parts.

Reid, 54, was arrested Saturday for allegedly selling corpses and body parts for profit. He was released from jail after posting $20,000 bail, and has declined to comment.

Nelson, 46, was arrested Sunday by university police for investigation of receiving known stolen property. A UCLA statement said Nelson, who was released from jail after posting $30,000 bail, was not a university employee.

Nelson told the Los Angeles Times that for six years he acted as a middle man who would retrieve body parts from the medical school's freezer and sell them to research companies.

He said Reid and other UCLA employees knew about his work.

Nelson added that he collected the body parts by simply walking into the center twice a week with a saw and taking them. Over the past six years, he said, he cut up about 800 cadavers and took knees, hands, torsos, heads and other parts, which he sold to as many as 100 clients.

Marlin said the university was still investigating how many cadavers Nelson may have cut up, but added that the number couldn't possibly have been as high as 800.

"For Nelson to say that other people knew what he was doing is ridiculous," Marlin said, adding that those involved were hiding their activity from the university.