SEATTLE — A scandal at Harvard University’s medical school involving donated human bodies is stirring up the emotions of family members in the Pacific Northwest, who have been victims of a similar crime.
“My first thought when I heard about what happened at Harvard Medical was about the families of the loved ones that had been donated…and how betrayed they must feel,” said David Griffin.
After his daughter, Amanda West, died from cancer in Seattle in 2019, she donated her body for research. But David Griffin and his family learned that donated bodies do not always end up where the donors intended.
That point was again made clear earlier in June when the FBI arrested the manager of the morgue at Harvard University’s Anatomical Gift Program. Federal officials say Cedric Lodge stole parts of human bodies that were donated for research and study by Harvard medical students. He is accused of selling the bones, brains, and skin to third parties who then sold the body parts on macabre websites. Agents arrested defendants in several states.
A pipeline of body donations
“I would say this is not a one-off, or a small thing,” said Griffin, from his home in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “This is a widespread problem.”
Griffin said that because of the case involving his own daughter, and other volunteers who registered to donate their bodies to the University of Washington’s School of Medicine after their deaths.
Before Amanda West died from a rare cancer at age 32, she filled out the paperwork for her cadaver to be gifted to the UW.
“She was clearly under the impression they were going to use her body for research,” said Griffin. “She saw this as, obviously, her last chance to help out her fellow man.”
Less than an hour after West's death on February 4, 2019, her mother called the University of Washington’s Willed Body hotline, as instructed, to have the university retrieve Amanda’s body. She was surprised when the donation was rejected.
But the person on the other end of the hotline recommended another option: Walter Mitchell, a private “body broker” who also accepted donations that could be used by medical and research facilities.
“We thought this person whoever was on the other end of the phone was with the UW and thought they were recommending this, so he must be a legitimate guy and must be a legitimate business,” said Griffin.
The University of Washington said the person who answered Griffin’s call was a contractor from First Call Plus, a funeral service that transports cadavers for the Willed Body Program. Mitchell, a private body broker with a spotty history in the tissue donation industry, had office space in the Kent facility of First Call Plus.
Through First Call Plus, Mitchell had a pipeline into the University of Washington that gave him access to bodies that were rejected by the medical program.
It’s unclear how many bodies Mitchell received. The University of Washington said it instructed its employees and contractors to stop recommending any private donation companies to donor families after KING 5 raised questions about the practice in 2021.
Families of human donors call for change
For-profit “body brokers” supply human remains to legitimate medical and research companies, and Mitchell had worked for several companies in the industry.
But his own Seattle company, FutureGenX, folded in 2020 with the onset of COVID.
Later that year, outdoorsmen near Prescott, Arizona found bags filled with human remains. A day later, a second pile of human remains was discovered several miles away. The bags had FutureGenX medical tags on them.
When Mitchell was arrested in Arizona, detectives determined he’d driven cadavers from Seattle down to Arizona. At some point, he simply left the human remains in the wilderness. He was charged with 29 counts of Abandonment of a Dead Body and would later be sentenced to six years in prison.
Several of the victims, like West, had been rejected by the University of Washington and referred to Mitchell.
Donors' families lay much of the blame on the University of Washington.
“For the University of Washington, a respected medical school, for them to be so careless I, I don't get it,” said Cheryl Patterson, whose ex-husband Doug Patterson was one of Mitchell’s victims.
“I'm more disappointed in the University of Washington Medical School, and I'm with Walter Mitchell,” said Evans Wilson, of Edmonds.
His mother Maudine was rejected by the US and donated to Mitchell, but later determined through a DNA test not to be one of the victims abandoned in Arizona.
“They’ve basically denied any responsibility for this,” Wilson said of the UW.
UW provided the following statement to KING 5:
"Our hearts go out to the families who are grieving and suffering as a result of the horrible incident that occurred last year. UW Medicine did not, at any time, have any relationship with FutureGenex, nor did we refer any families to them. We have since taken additional steps to further ensure that our contracted after-hours answering service is not making referrals to other whole-body donation programs. We are grateful for the selfless gifts of our donors and their families, which contribute to research and the education of future healthcare providers."
The tissue donation industry (separate from organ donation, in which organs are transplanted into a living person) has no federal regulation. There is no licensing or tracking of where donations end up.
The Harvard case prompted David Griffin to speak out, something he did not want to do when he attended Mitchell’s trial in Arizona.
Griffin is calling for more regulation to halt the indignity towards donors who offer their bodies to science and medicine.
“I do feel like that needs to change. And I don’t believe it will until we get a white, hot spotlight shone on the whole body donation industry,” Griffin said.
The Harvard case has already prompted some movement in the US Congress. Bills called the “Consensual Donation and Research Integrity Act” have been introduced in the House and Senate. They would require the first federal minimum standards in the body donation industry.