SEATTLE — A KING 5 investigation found that the largest medical school in the Northwest unwittingly helped supply donated human bodies to a former Seattle man who is now facing criminal charges.
Walter Mitchell, who operated FutureGenex, is in jail in Yavapai County, Arizona facing trial on 29 counts of abandonment or concealment of a dead body.
FutureGenex, which folded in February of 2020, according to court records, was a for-profit company that solicited donations of human bodies in exchange for paying the costs of cremation and other death-related services.
FutureGenex explained to donors that the company sold their bodies, or parts of them, for use at medical seminars, private educational facilities, and medical device manufacturing firms.
KING 5’s investigation found Walter Mitchell worked himself into a position where his company would be next in line to receive donated bodies that were rejected by the prestigious University of Washington School of Medicine.
“That really bothers me,” said Cheryl Patterson, whose ex-husband Doug Patterson signed up with the university’s “Willed Body Program” before he died in 2019.
Doug Patterson’s remains were found dumped in the desert near Prescott, Arizona in December 2020, along with the body parts of several other people.
“For the University of Washington, who is respected you know, the medical school … for them to be so careless, I don’t get it,” she said.
The UW School of Medicine accepts body donations so that medical students can learn real-world anatomy during their studies.
Douglas Patterson’s death from heart failure at age 59 provides the template of how Mitchell obtained bodies through the UW.
When the Camano Island man died on April 22, 2019, his family did as instructed and called the University’s “Willed Body Hotline” to report his death.
The person that answered the phone said the university was rejecting Patterson’s donation because of several disqualifying medical conditions, which his family said they were warned of in advance.
“They said they couldn’t take him, and they recommended this other place,” Cheryl Patterson said.
The other place was FutureGenex. The family signed a donation contract the next day with Walter Mitchell that said Doug’s body would be used by “third parties” for “education and training, scientific advancement, and/or research and development purposes.”
The family received an urn, purportedly filled with ashes from Doug’s body parts that were not used, a few weeks later and thought that his wish to further science and medicine had been granted.
But then, the Washington State Patrol came calling in early 2021.
Documents obtained by the KING 5 Investigators through a public records request show that Yavapai County Sheriff’s detectives forwarded the state patrol the names of 13 Washington state residents who had donated their bodies to FutureGenEx.
The people were potential victims whose body parts had been dumped in two remote locations in Yavapai County that were discovered in the days after Christmas 2020. Investigators found medical tags and labels near five human heads that were left in one location and arms, legs, knees, and feet that were left in another.
The medical information on those tags led investigators to Walter Mitchell, who they learned had closed FutureGenex in Seattle, and moved to Arizona allegedly with at least five bodies packed in cold storage.
Police records say Mitchell refused to speak with investigators when they questioned him at his home in Chino Valley, Arizona. He was arrested and charged with abusing the bodies and for possession of a pipe bomb, which authorities said they found during a search of his apartment.
Mitchell pleaded “not guilty” to all charges and his lawyer refused to discuss the case.
Meanwhile, Washington State Patrol detectives fanned out to get DNA samples from blood relatives of the 13 known victims in Washington to see if any of them matched the DNA from the body parts found in the desert.
Cheryl Patterson said her son’s DNA was a match to some of the body parts, confirming that Mitchell had allegedly dumped parts of Doug’s donated body in the Arizona desert.
“He’s an evil man. I think he’s evil,” Patterson said.
The University of Washington School of Medicine agreed to an on-camera interview with the KING 5 Investigators to explain its connection to Walter Mitchell. But the night before the scheduled interview, Media Relations Director Susan Gregg canceled, saying in an email “We don’t believe that an interview with our faculty would add any additional context to your story...”
Instead, the school released a statement.
“We cannot imagine the grief and suffering that these families have experienced over this heinous incident,” the university said in the written statement.
It then deflected blame to a private contractor.
“It is not our practice to provide the names of other programs…” when a donor is rejected by the university. “After hearing about this tragic incident, we discovered that against our established practice, our contracted transport and after-hours answering service provided names of other whole body donation programs…” the statement said.
The contractor, a funeral services company in Kent called First Call Plus run by Steve Webster, did not return repeated calls seeking comment. The UW says it still uses First Call Plus to answer its phone lines and transport bodies.
Using police and court records, KING 5 was able to identify and contact several of the 13 potential victims in the Arizona case.
Four families reported that they or their loved ones had signed up with the University of Washington’s Willed Body Program, which had rejected the donation upon death. Like the Patterson family, they called the hotline and believed they were talking to a university representative who rejected the donation. And, when that person recommended Walter Mitchell, they believed it meant that FutureGenex had the prestigious university’s seal of approval.
“If they’re going to give the name out, you would hope that they had done some sort of business or background (check) or something. This is serious business,” Cheryl Patterson said.
There were red flags for Walter Mitchell long before his ties to the University of Washington.
Court records show a 1993 felony conviction in which Mitchell stole money from an employer and fled to Mexico.
In 2014, the Phoenix body broker Mitchell worked for, Biological Resource Center, was raided by the FBI for lying to donors and mishandling body parts. Agents found rotting and mislabeled body parts and the head of a woman sewn onto a man’s body, among other abuses.
Owner Stephen Gore was charged and convicted. Mitchell was not charged and there is no record that he was accused of a crime.
The final red flag for the university should have been its statements in 2006.
That’s when the KING 5 Investigators aired a story on Biogift. It was one of the first private, for-profit “whole body donation” firms to open its doors in the Pacific Northwest. It was a novel concept and one that potentially competed with the university’s donation program.
Biogift’s owner at the time – Walter Mitchell – refused to speak with KING 5 for the story.
Biogift still operates in Washington state, but the company says Mitchell sold the company more than a decade ago and has no more involvement.
In 2006, the head of the UW’s Willed Body Program Dr. Dan Graney, said the unregulated “body broker” industry posed a threat to all the non-profits that seek donations.
“It’s always a matter of the next newspaper or TV broadcast that’s going to influence people to say, ‘You know, I’m not going to trust those people and I’m not going to donate my body and at that time we’re in real trouble,” Dr. Graney said in the broadcast.
It’s unclear how many bodies Mitchell received through his back-door link to the University of Washington.
“You trust them to take your loved one and treat them with respect, and that’s not at all what happened,” Cheryl Patterson 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.