Man Says He Sold UCLA Body Parts

selling body parts: for sale sign over outline of a man and cadaver
AP / CBS
A man arrested for allegedly stealing body parts from a medical school says he cut up hundreds of cadavers and sold the pieces to large research corporations with the knowledge of university officials.

The lawyer for the University of California, Los Angeles, dismissed the allegation of university complicity as "ridiculous."

Ernest V. Nelson, 46, was arrested Sunday by University of California police for investigation of receiving known stolen property with a value of more than $400. A UCLA statement said Nelson, who was released from jail after posting $30,000 bail, was not a university employee.

Authorities would say little about the case, but Nelson told the Los Angeles Times that for six years he retrieved body parts from the UCLA Medical School's freezer and sold them to large research companies.

He said he did so with the knowledge of UCLA employees, including Henry Reid, director of the school's cadaver program, which makes donated bodies available for medical education and research.

Reid, 54, was arrested Saturday for investigation of grand theft for allegedly selling corpses and body parts for profit. He was released from jail after posting $20,000 bail and has declined to comment.

"I call one of the most prestigious universities in the world, their director gives me the protocol, I follow that protocol and they charge me with receiving stolen body parts?" Nelson was quoted in Monday's editions of the Times.

Nelson added that he collected the body parts by simply walking into the UCLA Medical Center twice a week with a saw and taking them. Over the past six years, he said, he cut up approximately 800 cadavers and took knees, hands, torsos, heads and other parts, which he sold to as many as 100 other research labs.

"If I wasn't supposed to be there, why couldn't they tell me that?" Nelson asked. "It was not done in secret."

UCLA attorney Louis Marlin denied that the university knew what Nelson was doing. He said Nelson paid for the parts he took with cashier's checks made out to Reid.

"For Nelson to say that other people knew what he was doing is ridiculous," Marlin said, adding those involved were hiding their activity from the university.

One other UCLA employee who is also believed to have accepted money for body parts has been placed on leave. That person has not been identified or arrested.

Marlin said Nelson himself brought the situation to light when he filed a claim against the university for $241,000 for body parts he said he paid for and was then ordered to return.

That prompted an investigation during which Marlin said Reid admitted taking money from Nelson.

"I said, 'Henry, what's the total amount of money that this guy gave you?' and he says to me, 'Between $15,000 and $20,000,'" Marlin said.

At that point, Marlin said, campus lawyers turned the case over to police.

He said the university was still investigating how many cadavers Nelson may have cut up but added the number couldn't possibly have been as high as 800.

"It's impossible, because then UCLA would have had no bodies to use," he said.

Nelson said UCLA quit supplying him with body parts and ordered him to return the ones he still had after his business came under investigation last year. As a result, he said, the university owes him hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Marlin said it appeared Nelson demanded the money to keep quiet about what he was doing.

"The whole basis of this is you have one crook trying to steal more from another crook, and that's what brought it to light," he said.

According to its Web site, UCLA's "willed body" program "provides cadavers and anatomical material for medical and dental gross anatomy students, as well as researchers."