Prosecutors Say Man Made $1.5M Trafficking Human Body Parts

A man accused of buying and reselling human body parts donated to a University of California medical school conspired with a school official when they realized the scheme was profitable, prosecutors said during opening statements Wednesday.

Deputy District Attorney Marisa Zarate told jurors that Ernest Nelson, 51, of Rancho Cucamonga, came up with the $1.5 million scam in 1999 with Henry Reid, the former director of UCLA's cadaver program.

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

Nelson has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to commit grand theft, grand theft by embezzlement and tax evasion. If convicted, he faces more than six years in prison. Reid has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit grand theft and was sentenced to more than four years in prison.

Nelson's lawyer, Sean McDonald, told jurors Wednesday that his client ran a reputable business of transporting body parts to hospitals and medical research companies, but Reid was corrupt.

"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."

Zarate described Nelson as a middle man who paid Reid $43,000 for the remains. She said Reid helped conceal the scheme by writing a letter authorizing Nelson to release human parts.

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.

The scheme was discovered when a state health investigator became concerned about a sale in 2003 and contacted the university. Reid and Nelson were arrested in 2004, then freed as an investigation continued.

The incident led to a yearlong suspension of UCLA's cadaver program in 2004 and forced the school system to examine its donation rules and to put in place new procedures such as security and tracking systems for the bodies.