2 men charged in sale of donated bodies

Times Staff Writers

The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office announced criminal charges Wednesday against two men who allegedly ran a cadaver-trafficking scheme involving UCLA’s medical school, capping a three-year investigation that led to the temporary closure of the school’s body donor program.

Henry G. Reid, 57, an embalmer from Anaheim who was director of the “willed-body” program from 1997 to 2004, was charged with conspiracy and grand theft for allegedly funneling donated bodies to a middleman, who then sold parts to others for profit.

The alleged middleman -- Ernest Nelson, 49, of Rancho Cucamonga -- was charged with conspiracy, grand theft and tax evasion. He has acknowledged cutting up hundreds of cadavers and selling them to large medical research companies, including Johnson & Johnson. Nelson said the school authorized the sales, but UCLA officials say he was acting on his own.


Both Reid and Nelson were arrested Wednesday by UCLA police, and each is being held in lieu of $1-million bond. Neither could be reached for comment.

They could be arraigned in a downtown criminal courtroom as early as today.

If convicted on all charges, Reid could be sentenced to up to five years, eight months in state prison. The maximum possible prison term for Nelson, if convicted, is seven years, eight months.

Reid’s lawyer, Mel Sacks, blamed Nelson for any wrongdoing.

“When the case goes to court, the evidence will establish that Henry Reid is in the same position as UCLA,” Sacks said. “He was victimized just as the university was, by a master thief, Ernest Nelson.”

Nelson’s civil lawyer, Thomas Brill, said he suspects that the charges might have been an attempt by UCLA to delay civil lawsuits filed against the university by families of those who donated their bodies.

“I’ve never seen any evidence that he’s involved in any criminal activity,” said Brill, who does not represent Nelson in the criminal matter.

In an interview with The Times last year, Nelson said he was frustrated that his name hadn’t been cleared. He said he was working on his memoirs and helping lawyers suing UCLA on behalf of donors’ families.

He said he was open to selling his story, saying, “I have to do something to try to turn a negative into something positive.”

Jeff Jonas, head deputy of the district attorney’s major fraud division, would not discuss specific evidence in the case but disputed Nelson’s contention that his business was legitimate.

“In fact, it was a horrific business, and it was illegal, and he knew it,” Jonas said.

The willed-body controversy became public in March 2004, when UCLA placed Reid and an associate on leave for their alleged role in stealing body parts. Days later, UCLA suspended its program and did not reopen it for more than 1 1/2 years.

Reid’s associate, Keith Lewis, was never charged and died in July 2004 of an accidental drug overdose.

Reid and Nelson were arrested in March 2004 but were released without being charged.

“There was a substantial amount of information that we had to sort through,” said UCLA Police Capt. John Adams, explaining the length of the investigation.

According to a criminal complaint filed Monday, Reid gave human body parts to Nelson beginning in May 1999 and deposited checks from Nelson totaling $43,000 into his personal bank account. Nelson made additional cash payments to Reid to avoid a paper trail, the complaint said.

In turn, the complaint said, Nelson made more than $1 million by selling cadavers and body parts supplied by Reid to more than 20 medical, pharmaceutical and hospital research companies.

According to the complaint, both men conspired to hide their actions by creating fake forms to make it look like Nelson properly received the bodies from the UCLA program. When the California Department of Health Services investigated the matter in January 2003, Nelson denied being involved, the complaint said.

Nelson was also accused of providing fraudulent laboratory reports to a San Diego research company, NuVasive Inc., indicating the body parts the firm purchased had been screened for infectious diseases.

Prosecutors said the scheme began coming apart in the spring of 2003 when Reid asked Nelson to return body parts because of the investigation by state regulators. Months later, Nelson filed a claim with the University of California regents saying he was owed more than $241,000, the value of the parts he returned.

During an interview with UCLA lawyers Feb. 26, 2004, Reid “for the first time admitted his illegal connection with Ernest Nelson,” the complaint said.

Michael Arias, one of the lawyers representing several hundred of the families suing UCLA and the companies that received the parts, said he was surprised by Wednesday’s developments and that it could delay resolution of the civil suits.

Arias said attorneys were trying to use DNA testing to determine which donors’ bodies had been improperly sold.

Raymond Boucher, another plaintiff’s lawyer, said he hoped the arrests would bring to light new information on what took place. He said he believes there was corruption within the UCLA program that “went up the chain of command.”

UCLA officials said they have put in place additional staff and oversight to ensure that donated bodies are tracked closely and treated properly. In addition, later this year, they will begin using radio frequency devices to automatically track the bodies.

Dr. Allen Nissenson, associate dean for special projects at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, said the program has done well since it restarted in late 2005. It now receives about eight to 10 donations a month, compared with 15 at its peak.

It has rebounded “remarkably faster than I expected,” Nissenson said.