Body part 'brokers' work in a climate with little regulation

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(Source: 3TV/CBS 5) (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -

Cody Saunders died in August of 2016, after receiving a dialysis treatment. He was just 24 years old. 

“He would talk to anybody. He would help anybody,” said Angie Saunders, Cody’s mother. She says her son had a positive outlook, despite his life of medical problems and surgeries.

“He was born without a rectum. He had a hole in the heart, kidney disease,” said Saunders.

When Cody died, the Saunders family faced a problem many families face after the unexpected death of a loved one. They could not afford a burial. Angie says a family member came to her with a solution: a company that offered to take Cody’s body, use some tissue for scientific research, cremate Cody and return his ashes to the Saunders family for free.

It was a "tissue donation bank" or "tissue donation organization."

“All I remember is they were supposed to take skin cells, so they could figure out, maybe they could figure out what caused his disease,” Saunders said.

But the decision to donate Cody’s body to a tissue donation organization is something that has haunted Saunders ever since. She says she received a box with Cody’s ashes, but months later, she also received a phone call from a reporter from the Reuters news organization. The reporter had purchased Cody’s spine on the internet.

CBS 5 Investigates followed up on the work of that Reuters reporter, and traced the business where body brokers buy and sell human body parts, with little government oversight, sometimes selling to regular people with no science, education or medical background.

“People out there collect everything under the sun, including human body parts,” said Jason Robert, who is the Lincoln chair in ethics and director of the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics at Arizona State University.

“I’m talking about private people in their private homes having small, sometimes large collections of bones from human bodies,” he said.

Robert says that while tissue banks may not be violating the law, there are ethical concerns about whether they are being transparent with prospective donors or their families.

While organ donation and the donation of bodies to medical schools are highly regulated, non-transplant anatomical donations fall into a gray area with few governing laws. In Arizona, these organizations are required to be licensed, but there are few regulations beyond that.

"I think the transparency is going to be critical," said Robert.

The city of Los Alamitos, California is home to one business that sells human skeletons. It's called The Bone Room.

"We have to be a little careful about who we sell to," said Diana Mansfield, who is the owner of The Bone Room. She buys her skeletons from retiring doctors and she says she only sells to doctors, educators, scientists and first responders.

"People who train search and rescue dogs need human bones to train the dogs, to train them how to tell the human scent from, say, a deer odor," said Mansfield.

Her warehouse has dozens of boxes of bones and skulls, and about a dozen full skeletons. Those can cost as much as $6000.

While The Bone Room doesn't sell to ordinary people, another similar company doesn't have that restriction.

CBS 5 Investigates purchased a human fibula from Skulls Unlimited, based in Oklahoma. The bones are listed on the company's website, and there are no questions about what the remains will be used for. And they take credit cards.

Skulls Unlimited did not respond to emails sent to its website, but a customer service employee who spoke to us on the phone said some bones are restricted to the medical and science field, while other bones from donors are not.

Skulls Unlimited did not handle Cody Saunders' remains. That company, Restore Life USA, did not respond to our request for an interview.

Angie Saunders said she thinks tissue banks need to be regulated more closely.

"They make money off my child and that's wrong," she said.

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Morgan  LoewMorgan Loew is an investigative reporter at CBS 5 News. His career has taken him to every corner of the state, lots of corners in the United States, and some far-flung corners of the globe.

Click to learn more about Morgan .

Morgan Loew
CBS 5 Investigates

Morgan’s past assignments include covering the invasion of Iraq, human smuggling in Mexico, vigilantes on the border and Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Maricopa County. His reports have appeared or been featured on CBS News, CNN, NBC News, MSNBC and NPR.

Morgan’s peers have recognized his work with 11 Rocky Mountain Emmy Awards, two regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for investigative reporting, an SPJ First Amendment Award, and a commendation from the Humane Society of the United States. In October 2016, Morgan was inducted into the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Silver Circle in recognition of 25 years of contribution to the television industry in Arizona.

Morgan is graduate of the University of Arizona journalism school and Concord Law School at Purdue University Global. He is the president of the Arizona First Amendment Coalition and teaches media law and TV news reporting at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

When he’s not out looking for the next big news story, Morgan enjoys hiking, camping, cheering for the Arizona Wildcats and spending time with his family at their southern Arizona ranch.

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Gilbert ZermenoIn 34 years of broadcast journalism, Gilbert Zermeño has collected 20 Emmy Awards, three Edward R. Murrow awards, and multiple Associated Press and Best of the West Awards.

Click to learn more about Gilbert.

Gilbert Zermeño
CBS 5 Investigates

He has also been named the Arizona Press Club Television Photographer of the year. And New Times magazine named him Best Television Journalist in Phoenix -- twice.

Zermeño is a member of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Silver Circle, an award voted on by the board of governors in recognition for over 25 years of broadcast journalism excellence.

"Z," as he’s known to team members, has been an investigative producer/photojournalist for CBS 5 for the past 21.5 years.

Z has covered the L.A. Riots, Desert Shield in Saudi Arabia, political figures in Central America, orphans in Mexico and street fights in downtown Phoenix.

Zermeño just completed his ninth year as an adjunct professor at Arizona State University's Cronkite School of Journalism and was named the 2011-2012 Faculty Associate of the Year.

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