A businessman accused of selling human body parts donated to UCLA’s medical school in a scandal that tarnished the reputation of the university’s willed-body program was found guilty Thursday of conspiring to commit grand theft, embezzlement and tax evasion .
Los Angeles County prosecutors said Ernest V. Nelson, 51, cut up heads, torsos and other parts from donated corpses and sold them without UCLA’s permission to medical and pharmaceutical research companies, collecting $1.5 million between 1999 and 2003.
The bodies were donated to UCLA for medical and scientific research at the university. The scandal over the sale of the body parts became public in 2004 and prompted the closure of the program for more than 18 months.
Prosecutors said Nelson hatched the scheme with the director of the willed-body program, Henry Reid, who pleaded guilty last year to conspiring to commit theft. Reid received checks from Nelson totaling $43,000 in return for giving him access to the bodies, prosecutors said. Other payments were allegedly made in cash.
Prosecutors said Nelson acted as the middleman, selling hundreds of body parts to various research companies around the country, including pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson. The conspiracy was uncovered when a state health investigator grew suspicious that Nelson was fraudulently claiming that the parts had been screened for infectious diseases before selling them.
“This was a man for whom money was more important than the safety of doctors and other medical technicians,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Marisa Zarate, one of two prosecutors on the case. “He was willing to go into a willed-body program and cut up body parts for his own personal financial gain.”
The jury took about a day to convict Nelson, who faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. Reid, an embalmer from Anaheim, is serving more than four years in prison.
Prosecutors said they decided not to call Reid to testify, saying he would have been an unreliable witness. “He is a liar. He is a thief. He is a cheater,” Zarate said outside court.
A juror said after the verdicts that there was overwhelming evidence against Nelson, but that the university also was at fault for failing to provide better supervision of the willed-body program.
“UCLA played a major role in allowing something like this,” said the juror, a 48-year-old paralegal who spoke on condition that his name not be published.
Nelson, who operated a body-broker business that supplied body parts to private medical research companies, has long insisted that UCLA authorized the sales of the cadavers.
His attorney, Deputy Public Defender Sean K. McDonald, argued during the trial that the university made his client a scapegoat to conceal the program’s poor treatment of bodies. He said his client’s payments to Reid were legitimate, but that the program’s director pocketed the money instead of forwarding it to the university.
“We’re very disappointed,” McDonald said after the verdict. He declined further comment.
UCLA released a statement saying it has improved its tracking and security of cadavers donated to the program to ensure that they are used for research and student education.
In the wake of the scandal, hundreds of relatives of donors filed lawsuits alleging negligence by UCLA and some of the companies that bought body parts from Nelson.
Most of the suits have been dismissed, said attorney Louis Marlin of Irvine-based Marlin & Saltzman, who is representing UCLA. The rest are pending.