ARIZONA, USA — Since a grisly discovery in the central Arizona desert, authorities have been quietly collecting DNA samples from a dozen or so Washington state families.
Authorities are trying to determine the identities of human body parts that were found in two “dumpsites” in December 2020.
The KING 5 Investigators learned that detectives from the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office contacted the Washington State Patrol last year and passed along a list of 13 potential victims. State patrol detectives fanned out to collect DNA from their relatives.
It began when a hiker near the Prescott National Forest reported scattered body parts including knees, arms and legs - 24 body parts in all. A day later, on Dec. 27, 2020, a hunter found five human heads about 10 miles away.
Any theories that it could have been the work of a serial killer were laid to rest by clues like a “small silver tag” similar to a medical bracelet, medical gauze, and packaging that led the medical examiner to conclude the "human remains were being used for research.”
That information led detectives to a Seattle company called FutureGenex, a firm that solicited donations of human bodies that it supplied to medical training and research companies.
FutureGenex was a “body broker” operating in the largely unlicensed and unregulated market of “whole body donation.”
In October, the KING 5 Investigators reported on an autopsy “show” in the Pacific Northwest in which the audience paid up to $500 each to view the dissection of a corpse in a hotel ballroom. The cadaver was provided by a Las Vegas body broker called Med Ed Labs. A Med Ed manager said the company was duped into providing the body by the show’s organizer, who claimed it would be a seminar for medical education.
The case involving FutureGenex, and its owner Walter Mitchell, is only the latest outrage in an industry that some critics call the “wild west.”
Bodies dumped in Arizona
The doorbell at Evans Wilson’s Edmonds home rang early in 2020 and he answered to find a Washington State Patrol detective at his door.
“He wanted to do a DNA test on me so that it could be determined whether any of the remains in Arizona were my mother’s,” Wilson said.
That’s when Wilson first learned what might have happened to his 104-year-old mother’s body after he donated it to FutureGenex.
Wilson arranged with the University of Washington’s Willed Body Program to donate his mother’s body to the medical school. Maudine Wilson once worked for the university and her son believed she would want to further the education of medical students.
After her death in October of 2019, he called the Willed Body Program’s hotline as instructed and was told the program would not accept her body.
Evans said during that call he was referred to FutureGenex as an alternative.
The contract Wilson signed with FutureGenex said the donated body would be used for "education and training, scientific advancement, and/or research and development purposes.”
But after the visit with the detective, Wilson had to call his sister Marie Christianson in Bothell and tell her the news of what might have happened to their mother.
“It was hurtful to think she would be treated that way. Not only her but anyone else. I thought it was disgusting,” Christianson said.
According to police reports, FutureGenex folded in February of 2020 and Walter Mitchell packed up five human bodies and transported them to Arizona.
Mitchell refused to answer questions when approached by deputies, so why he might have dumped the remains in the desert is a mystery.
Mitchell is in jail in Yavapai County awaiting trial after pleading not guilty to 29 counts of abandonment or concealment of a dead body. His defense lawyer in Arizona would not comment on the case.
Authorities in Yavapai County refuse to discuss their case.
UW Medicine's Willed Body Program released a statement, saying in part, "These generous gifts from our donors and their families to the UW School of Medicine are an invaluable contribution to the education of future healthcare providers, allowing us to conduct studies that advance medicine to improve the health of the public. Our program is an educational service that treats families and their deceased loved ones with dignity and respect."
Identifying the remains
Through a records request to the Washington State Patrol, the KING 5 Investigators obtained the names of 13 of Mitchell’s donors that Washington State Patrol detectives have attempted to contact.
By comparing samples from the body parts to the DNA of living relatives, detectives have been able to positively identify some of the remains.
Evans Wilson said the DNA test eventually showed that his mother’s remains were not among those found in Arizona.
“It wasn’t a match and my mother was not part of the remains that were discovered in the desert,” Wilson said.
But KING 5 contacted three families that said DNA resulted in a positive match. Two were from the Puget Sound area and one was from Moses Lake.
Only the family of Doug Patterson of Camano Island, who died from heart failure in 2019, gave permission to release his identity. The other two families said the news from Arizona was so upsetting that they did not want to share it with close relatives.
'This happens in America'
Walter Mitchell was a former employee of Biological Resource Center (BRC), one of the most notorious “body broker” prosecutions in the country.
David TeSelle, a Denver attorney who sued BRC on behalf of several donor families, secured a $58 million jury verdict against the company for its handling of donated corpses.
“This happens in America, not in a third-world country, but that in America, people are able to get donated bodies, cut them up, and sell them off a price list, often on the black market,” TeSelle said.
The FBI raided BRC in Phoenix in 2014 and its owner Stephen Gore was convicted of running an illegal enterprise for selling body parts from people with infectious diseases to unwitting buyers, among other crimes.
Mitchell was not accused of, or charged, with any crime.
“[FBI agents] found a large male torso with a small women’s head sewn on top of it, as if they were mocking what they were doing,” TeSelle said.
TeSelle said the industry is so unregulated it requires no license in most states and there are no industry standards.
The business of whole-body donations is completely separate from the organ harvesting and transplant trade, which is highly regulated by federal law.
The organ donor agreement on driver’s licenses, for example, does not include whole body donation.
The American Association of Tissue Banks calls whole body donation organizations “Non-Transplant anatomical donation organizations” or NADOs.
Because of abuses over the years by several NADOs, the Association of Tissue Banks instituted a program to inspect and certify qualifying NADOs.
There are seven accredited NADOs across the country, including MedCure in Portland, OR.
Marie Christianson said even though her mother’s remains were not dumped in the Arizona desert, she is left to wonder if the ashes that Mitchell returned to her in an urn are those of her mother.
She’s astonished no laws ensure that body brokers live up to their end of the bargain.
“I think it's appalling. I really do,” Christianson said.
Interested in body donation?
The American Association of Tissue Banks warns there are many firms that accept whole body donations in the US. But only seven of them are accredited by the AATB.
This means that participating donation firms must: allow independent inspections of their facilities, maintain sufficient records and prove that they are providing a supply of safe, donated human tissue.