Two Charged With Running $1 Million Body-Parts Scheme Through UCLA Program

A former UCLA official and an associate were arrested Wednesday on charges that they illegally sold parts of bodies donated for research in a scheme that produced more than $1 million in profits.

After years of investigation by campus police, Henry Reid, 57, former director of the Willed Body Program, was arrested at his Anaheim home. Ernest Nelson, 49, and an associate of Reid's, was taken into custody in Rancho Cucamonga.

Authorities say the scam took place between May 7, 1999, and Feb. 26, 2004. Bodies donated to the university were supposed to be used for medical study and research. Prosecutors said that instead, Reid made $43,000 by selling remains to Nelson, who operated Empire Anatomical Co.

Nelson, in turn, is suspected of making more than $1 million by selling hundreds of body parts to more than 20 private medical, pharmaceutical and hospital research companies.

The scheme began to unravel in 2003, prosecutors said, after a state health investigator became concerned about a sale and contacted the university.

Reid asked Nelson to return some body parts, and Nelson did but told UCLA that he was going to sue, claiming he was owed $241,000 for them, authorities said. That prompted a UCLA audit, which found a "large number" of bodies were unaccounted for, according to prosecutors.

The willed body program was suspended in 2004, but it resumed operation in October 2005 under stricter safeguards and guidelines, said Dr. Allen Nissenson, associate dean for special projects at the UCLA Medical School. The two men were arrested in 2004 but freed while an investigation continued.

The investigation dragged on in part because documents were tied up, being copied under court order for use in lawsuits filed by relatives of people who donated their bodies to UCLA. More than a dozen lawsuits are pending.

Norman Abrams, acting chancellor of the University of California, Los Angeles, said in a statement that the school "appreciates the patience exhibited by the families of donors" during the probe.

"The entire UCLA community was deeply distressed by what occurred. We look forward to continuing our work to advance medical science, train physicians and serve the community," he added.

Reid and Nelson were charged with one count each of conspiracy with a special allegation that the loss was more than $150,000. Reid also was charged with one count of grand theft by embezzlement and one count of grand theft. Nelson also was charged with one count of grand theft and three counts each of tax evasion.

Both men remained in jail Wednesday, each held in lieu of $1 million bail.

Nelson, who has sued UCLA, contends he believed he was working with school authorization when he received torsos from UCLA, cut them up and kept frozen parts in a rented warehouse to provide them for corporate clients, said his civil attorney, Thomas Brill.

"I don't think there's any evidence" of criminal wrongdoing, Brill said.

Said Reid's attorney, Melvyn Sacks: "Henry's as big a victim in this matter as UCLA is, and they were both victimized by a master thief, Ernest Nelson," Sacks said. "I have every confidence that justice will be done when we get into court."

Reid could be sentenced to as many as five years and eight months in prison if convicted of all counts, while Nelson faces up to seven years and eight months, said Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.

The scandal was not the first time the UCLA willed body program was embroiled in controversy.

In 1996, lawyers representing donors' relatives sued, charging that the program had illegally disposed of thousands of donated bodies. The lawsuits claimed that some remains from different donors were commingled and that some were buried in landfills. A state appellate court eventually ruled the plaintiffs had failed to prove the allegations.