California Man Convicted in Body Parts Trafficking Scheme
LOS ANGELES – A man was convicted Thursday of carving up cadavers donated to UCLA's medical school and selling the parts to unsuspecting medical research companies in a $1.5 million scheme.
Jurors found Ernest Nelson, 51, guilty of eight counts, including grand theft and tax evasion. Prosecutors said Nelson could face a maximum of 12 years in prison and they want him to repay $1.5 million to UCLA.
Nelson "was willing to go into a willed body program and cut up body parts for his own personal financial gain," prosecutor Marisa Zarate said after the verdict.
Defense attorney Sean McDonald said he was disappointed by the verdict and left court without further comment.
Prosecutors said Nelson and Henry Reid, the former director of UCLA's Willed Body Program, devised the scam in 1999.
Nelson, who ran a business transporting body parts to hospitals and medical research firms, has said he thought the sales were authorized by the university.
Prosecutors said he bought the donated torsos, cut them up and kept them frozen in a rented warehouse until they were sold to companies that didn't know they had been improperly obtained.
Nelson, of Rancho Cucamonga, used cashier's checks to pay Reid a total of $43,000 in 1999, Zarate said. Other payments were made in cash and weren't documented, she said.
The plan unraveled after a state health investigator became concerned about a sale in 2003 and contacted UCLA.
Reid has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit grand theft and was sentenced to more than four years in prison.
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 tracking systems for the bodies. Roxanne Moster, a spokeswoman for the medical school, said in a statement that the school was "confident that these measures will ensure that our donors' generosity will be used only to advance scientific research and our students' education."
One juror said lax supervision of the UCLA program contributed to the problem.
"If UCLA had better supervision of its program something like this wouldn't have happened," said the 48-year-old man who asked that his name be withheld to protect his job as a paralegal.
The jury also found there was a pattern of fraud and embezzlement totaling more than $500,000 — a special enhancement allegation that will be considered during sentencing on June 12.
Founded in 1950, the UCLA cadaver program received about 175 donated bodies a year before it was suspended. 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.