A Riverside County funeral home owner with a history of financial trouble has been jailed for allegedly selling to research institutions the body parts of cadavers, many of them indigents.
The arrest Thursday of Michael Francis Brown, 42, follows a yearlong investigation by the Riverside County Sheriff's Department. He has been charged with 156 felony counts of unlawful mutilation of human remains and embezzlement.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Karen Gorham said Brown made $400,000 in a year illegally selling body parts to institutions such as the University of Kentucky, the University of Utah and East Carolina University, which use them in anatomy, embalming and medical school classes. The institutions thought they were buying body parts and cadavers legitimately, sheriff's Sgt. Shelley Kennedy-Smith said.
Brown was held at Riverside County Jail on $400,000 bail.
Telephones at the mortuary were answered by a service Friday. Brown's attorney, Rick Layon, said Brown was innocent and blamed the arrest on a disgruntled employee.
Gorham confirmed the investigation began on a tip from one of Brown's former employees. Kennedy-Smith said this was the first such case in Riverside County. If convicted, Brown could face 100 years in prison.
"We've received numerous phone calls today from people wondering if their next of kin was involved," the prosecutor said.
Brown owns Pacific Family Funeral Home, Pacific Cremation Care and Bio-Tech Anatomical, all at the same address in Lake Elsinore.
Authorities said Bio-Tech was established in 2000 to handle "willed bodies," cadavers legitimately donated to science. Bio-Tech was allowed to send body parts to universities or companies for research.
Brown also had a contract with Riverside County to bury and cremate those too poor to pay for burials. He entered into the first contract April 1, 1998. The contract was terminated when the county became aware of the investigation in March 2001.
Sheriff's investigators searched Brown's business and his former and current homes in March 2001. They carted away boxes of business records, along with dozens of body parts, Gorham said.
Authorities have identified the remains of 39 people. At least 10 were indigents. Gorham said she could not rule out that Brown's businesses had handled all cadavers in a similar way.
Brown does not hold a state license as a funeral director or an embalmer. He does hold licenses with the state Cemetery and Funeral Bureau to operate Pacific Crematorium and Pacific Cremation Care Inc.
He also had held a business license for Pacific Family Home and Cremation. Records with the state Cemetery and Funeral Bureau show the business was fined $2,500 for four minor violations after an inspection in September 2000.
Brown fixed the problems, but because he has not paid the fine, the business' license expired in November.
Records show federal and county tax judgments of $23,252 filed against Pacific Crematorium, along with a civil judgment of $9,934.
Records also show that Brown and his wife, Victoria, filed for protection under Chapter 7 of the federal bankruptcy law in 1994.
Brown's arrest is the latest scandal to emerge from willed body programs in recent years. The head of UC Irvine's program, Christopher Brown, was fired in 1999 after an audit found alleged wrongdoing. Christopher Brown and Michael Brown are apparently unrelated, Gorham said.
Eventually in the UCI case, it was revealed that at least two donated cadavers were used without university permission in a private anatomy class in the Willed Body morgue, and families may have received the wrong remains or been improperly billed for the return of their relatives' ashes.
A UCI audit uncovered hundreds of dollars of overcharges made to a company that transported cadavers. A business associate of Christopher Brown's owned the company.
No charges were filed in the case.