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This show contains graphic content that may be difficult for some listeners.


Please listen with care. Stealing bodies and selling them is hardly a new thing. Body snatching has been documented as far back as the 17 hundreds, and it's captured the public imagination for generations.


Edinburgh, 1828 this is wrong.


What do you do for a living in surgical supplies?


This is from a silly movie that came out in 2010.


It's set 200 years ago in Scotland, and it's full of lewd jokes about dead bodies and slapstick humor.


Showtime. Is she dead?


Yeah, she snuffed it.


These bumbling guys, William Burke and William Hare are played by famous british comic actors Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis. Burke and Hare were real historical figures who became notorious for their line of work. They were selling corpses to a surgeon named Dr. Robert Knox. Dr. Knox was a medical rock star of his era. He needed bodies to practice on at his anatomy school, so he struck up an arrangement with Birkin Hare. Each time they delivered a cadaver to his doorstep, he paid them handsomely.


I'll give you three pounds.


Birkin Hare were thrilled to be working for the doctor and brought him 16 cadavers in less than a year. Dr. Knox didn't ask how they got them. You see, Burke and Hare weren't just stealing bodies. They were actually killing people, suffocating them.


Some of their victims were homeless and.


Poor people they thought wouldn't be missed. Burke and Hare's success didn't last. They made some dumb mistakes and got caught. Hare ratted out Burke, and he was released from custody. Nobody really knows what happened to him. Burke, on the other hand, met an ironic end. He was hanged in the public square.


And his body was dissected.


It's on display in a museum to this day. The tale of Birkin hair may seem like ancient history, but today, not much has changed. Bodies are still being stolen, the medical world is still buying, and brokers are still making a mint.


From campsite Media and Sony Music Entertainment, this is cover up Body Brokers episode four Body Snatchers. I'm Ashley Fonction.


It's at the heart of everything we do and at three business connection starts by getting to know your business, the ins and outs and ups and downs, so we can really bring your connections to life. Because every part of every business is connected. So you need a reliable team of dedicated experts to keep everything well connected. Experts who have won the Best Customer Experience award three years running. It's why so many businesses, big and small, choose three to really bring their connections to life. Discover how we can help your business at three IE business best Customer experience at the Irish Customer Contact and shared.


Services Awards 2023 hello, I'm Elizabeth Day, the creator and host of how to fail. It's the podcast that celebrates the things in life that haven't gone right, and what, if anything, we've learned from those mistakes to help us succeed better. Each week, my guests share three failures, sparking intimate, thought provoking, and funny conversations. You'll hear from a diverse range of voices sharing what they've learned through their failures. Join me Wednesdays for a new episode each week. This is an Elizabeth Day and Sony Music Entertainment original podcast. Listen now wherever you get your podcasts.


April 17, 2015 Megan Hess, owner of Sunset Mesa Funeral Home, sends an email about a, quote, terrific piece of material. February 13, 2017 another email with the subject line tissue. These weren't emails about caskets or floral arrangements. Meghan was selling dead bodies to companies that were supposedly doing medical research. Meghan promised families that donation could lead.


To cures for diseases like cancer. But she was lying.


The truth was her mom Shirley was dismembering the dead so that Megan could sell their heads, torsos, and legs. I really wanted to talk to Megan and Shirley. I wrote letters and got no response. I reached out to family members, but no one close to them would talk to me. There was one person who would talk to me, though.


My name is Philip Gallette. People like to call me or us body brokers. I was in the business from approximately 1992 93 to 2009.


Philip Gallette was one of the most notorious criminal body brokers in the United States. He wasn't involved with Megan's scheme, but he was willing to tell me his story, the body broker's perspective. I hoped he'd help me understand Megan and Shirley a little better and why on earth anyone would get into this line of work.


So we're going to leave sunset Mesa in Colorado for a bit we're going to California, just outside Los Angeles. That's where it all started for Philip. Philip didn't start out in a career anywhere close to the funeral industry.


Growing up, I really liked the outdoors. I really wanted to be something like a forest ranger, working outside, no forest.


Philip became a land surveyor. You know, the workers on the road in red hard hats and yellow vests. It's a good job, Philip says, one that gives you opportunities to move up, get licensed, start your own firm. Plus, of course, you get to be outside. And Philip didn't plan to leave. He fell into the body trade by accident. Literally.


I had slipped and fell down the hill and ruptured two disks in my back.


After he got hurt on the job, Philip couldn't work in land surveying anymore, so he signed up for a class in a new field to help him switch careers.


I chose medical assisting because it was the shortest class, and it kind of just gave me six months to figure out what I wanted to do. One of the instructors there that I became friends with, she told me about possibly becoming a coroner's investigator.


The local coroner's office had a training program, so Philip signed up. He worked nights.


That was my first experience with dealing with dead bodies, checking in the bodies, weighing them, x raying them when you had to, disrobing them, taking them out of the cooler to prep them for, like, autopsies and such. And that led on to actually assisting with autopsies.


This was a coroner's office outside LA in the 1990s.


It was busy.


A lot of deaths, a lot of bodies.


Seeing a dead body and then touching them is completely different because you're so used to touching people around you, loved ones, or shaking people's hands. My dad used to take us fishing. I used to go hunting. So I dealt with, like, field dress and deer. It's not the same, but you've already stuck your hands inside something that was alive. But the things that you really don't get prepared for are, like when the decomposed bodies come in, people that die of just natural causes and weird cases. It's a decapitation. It's a drug overdose. It's someone hanging from the ceiling. It's all the stuff no one wants to look at, no one wants to see.


Even amid the horrific scenes, Philip was a fast learner. He told me that working alongside the coroner made him feel special.


When I started working at the coroner's office, these doctors with just years and years of experience are saying, hey, you're really learning a lot here. You're doing a good job.


Less than a year after he started working at the coroner's office, Philip took another job, this one at a local medical college. He ran the school's body donation program, getting cadavers for anatomy labs.


Think of all the medical students every semester who need fresh cadavers to work on. There's really no anatomical model that can compare to the actual human body.


But the program was short on donors when Philip was hired, so we had.


To purchase bodies until I could build that program up.


It was a whole new world, buying bodies. To get the program up and running, Philip was meeting with directors of similar body donation programs at other universities, learning how this industry worked. And that's when Philip met someone who changed the game for him.


And when he showed up, he showed up in a brand new Lexus, wearing a three piece suit. He had the same job I had now. At the time, I was making about $35,000 a year, and I started thinking, I'm doing something completely wrong.


The man told Philip that he was freelancing independently, selling the bodies that the universities didn't end up using. And he seemed to be making a whole lot of money doing it. This sounded like a pretty sweet deal to Philip, so he hustled, started calling more funeral homes and hospices, told them to send anyone who wanted to donate their body his way. And pretty soon, the college program he managed had too many bodies.


And then what? Your goal is to have the surplus, but it's not for the school.


Philip asked his bosses, can I sell the surplus bodies? And according to him, they said yes.


So then Philip started to sell the excess bodies to other colleges.


Shoulders, knees, hips were at least $500 each. Hip to knees could be one $500 each side, or $3,000 for both.


With profits like that, Phillips soon decided to strike out on his own. He kept his job at the university, but he started this little side gig. He rented a space at an office park, a two room unit with a garage door, load in, and opened his own body brokerage.


It was 1000 square foot warehouse, ten by ten front office. It was very cheap to run this business because it's just chest freezers. I think I had eight freezers at the time, the big sears ones, and then my walk in cooler. There was room enough for the van to back up through the garage door opening. So nobody ever saw, like, a body being delivered.


It was a one man operation. Philip used a saw or large scissors to take apart bodies. Sometimes rose pruners he got at Home Depot.


Nothing is done under sterile conditions. Nothing's embalmed. It's just cut fresh and then frozen.


Then he'd wrap the parts in black trash bags and store them in the freezer until they were ready to be shipped out. And Philip had all these connections from his job at the college. So through word of mouth, his business grew.


I'd already had a network of clients through my time at the medical school, so they'll give my number out to another university. So maybe University of Utah calls me and says, we need hip to ankle specimens. Okay, how many do you need?


Soon he was selling to doctors groups, to medical device companies. Maybe dental surgeons needed to try out a new implant, and they needed a bunch of heads to train on.


I was averaging on my own probably ten to 20 bodies a month.


For someone with only a GED, that was good money.


Tens of thousands of dollars every month. It was just a free for all. If you can get a body, you had a buyer.


And at first, Philip says he was keeping everything above board, filing death certificates, making sure he had written consents from donors families.


All the bodies that I dealt with were donated to me. All the consents were normally signed either at the funeral home or at the hospice or at the hospital. And this is during the time of fax machines. And I always had our fax machine in the kitchen, so I can fax over release forms and consent forms and stuff.


But it didn't take long for Philip to see another chance to make money off the dead. And all it required was him telling a little white lie. After a body is cremated, funeral homes end up with this leftover metal waste from jewelry or medical implants or gold dental crowns. Philip realized that all this stuff ended up just sitting around in their facilities.


And that's when I started researching the value of surgical implant material.


So Philip made a deal with a whole network of funeral homes. For no fee, he'd pick up this leftover metal, like titanium and cobalt, and he told the funeral homes he was recycling it, but really he'd resell it.


I was performing this service for over 400 crematories throughout the US and Canada and literally making, I'd say, free and clear, at least $500,000 a year.


Whatever the demand was, Philip was there to supply it. In the early two thousand s, a company coordinating a medical training asked Philip to fedex them some arms and legs.


Now, usually, Philip shipped body parts in hard sided coolers, but this client had asked for a cheaper option.


I was asked by the person I was sending these extremities to if I could switch to insulated boxes. And these insulated boxes that she wanted me to use. Were normally used to ship things like salmon filets, big pieces of fish, not human legs.


Philip said, okay, and he shipped the limbs that way. And shipping body parts through the mail, that's actually pretty standard in the body trade. The same shipping companies that ship Christmas gifts and furniture. Ship organs and body parts all the time. But what happened next landed him in hot water.


One of the boxes broke. And since this is fresh tissue, some of the stuff starts defrosting. And I got a phone call asking what this pink solution could be leaking out of the boxes.


The press went after him, but Philip, he was more annoyed about the whole thing than anything else.


I'm a legit business. Everything was legal on the box. There are labels that say biohazard human tissue for research purposes only. I got so tired of answering questions. That I had said to one of the reporters. I said, FedEx does it all the time. They ship heart valves. They ship corneas. But if a cornea falls off a truck, no one gives a shit. But a leg or an arm, you end up on the news.


The way he saw it, people shipped human body parts all the time. There was nothing illegal about that. Why should he be the poster child for one shipment gone wrong? Some people might close up shop after getting this kind of news coverage. But Philip kept working the money he was raking in from selling bodies. It was too hard to walk away from.


We were used to making good money now, and I didn't know any other way to do it.


After about a decade in the body brokering business, Philip Gallette had developed a kind of distance from the work he was doing.


If you think of the human body as just like a commodity, you just don't realize how many things people want from that one body. It's just like snowballs.


He told me to think about the human body similar to a car in a chop shop. It's often more lucrative to take a car apart and sell its individual parts. Than it is to sell the whole thing. And maybe it was that attitude that led to Philip's downfall. By 2005, Philip was starting to have money problems.


It cost me $14,000 to $28,000 a month just to stay in business. Which means that a certain number of people have to die every month for me to make a living. And I would say that's probably the beginning of when I kind of wanted to get out of the business.


He'd moved to North Carolina, and he'd branched into a new area of body donation. Now he was not only selling body parts for research, he was also selling tissue and organs from dead bodies for transplant into living people. This was new territory for Philip, with new regulations he had to follow. When it comes to selling tissue for transplant, there are very strict rules to protect patients from diseases.


And all these regulations were costing Philip more time and more money. Now he had more bodies than he could sell.


At the time, I just wanted that tissue out of my possession.


And in his rush to get surplus sold off, Philip did something very irresponsible and very dangerous.


He concocted a scheme to sell tissue that wasn't necessarily eligible for donation, like from people who'd been iv drug users or had cancer or hepatitis. He then forged paperwork making it appear like the disease tissue was healthy.


I took white out, and I erased or omitted some of the donor's ages and some of the cancer diagnosis.


He sent the disease tissue off to tissue banks. And once it was tested at one of those banks, Philip's body brokering days were over.


I had taken my wife and kids on a road trip, and I got a phone call from the DC office of the Food and Drug Administration. So by the time I got home, I was met with every cable news organization. On my front lawn, you can see the antennas sticking up over the houses.


What Philip had done was a federal crime, and he got arrested.


Philip Gallette's attorney says he wasn't trying to hurt anyone.


He was cutting corners to get rid of tissue.


But it wasn't as harmless as Philip's defense lawyer made it sound.


Prosecutors said that more than 120 patients received tissue from people with questionable medical histories.


At least one victim reportedly got a staph infection that a doctor suspected was Philip's fault.


His case sparked true fear at the FDA. Was the tissue supply safe? Thousands of people who had undergone procedures involving tissues were urged to get tested for HIV and other diseases.


The federal government even formed a task force to look into the problem of body brokers. Facing up to 60 years in prison for fraud, Philip owned up to his actions.


In federal court in Raleigh today, a man pleaded guilty to charges involving body parts and falsified documents.


Philip ended up getting eight years in prison. On his way out of court, a woman screamed, he's a butcher.


Like I went from being a respected family man to Igor, a body robber, gravedigger.


The feds took his house, everything he owned. He lost all that money body brokering brought him. But he lost something way more valuable. Time.


My oldest son was six and my youngest was four. The worst thing that happened was just being away from them, really during the most important time of their life and where they need a dad. So it is impossible to play catch. And that's, I guess that's the truth.


While Philip may have learned a lesson, the world of body brokering definitely didn't.


In the years since he got caught, at least nine sensational body broker cases have hit the headlines. Brokers who stole bodies lied to buyers or lied about disease, tissue being healthy. And those are just the latest body broker cases we know about.


Federal prosecutors say Arthur Rathburn sold these cadavers to doctors and dentists. Jury found former Seattle body broker Walter Mitchell guilty of dumping the remains of at least nine Washington donors in Arizona.


And just this past summer, in 2023, federal agents arrested a guy who ran the morgue at Harvard Medical School. The former morgue manager at Harvard Medical School is accused of stealing body parts from the morgue and selling them across state lines.


Do you have any remorse?


The Harvard case exposed even more body brokers. Some of the characters described in court papers seemed straight out of a horror movie. There was a woman who bought dissected faces and a guy who purchased human remains via PayPal and accepted human skin as payment. When asked for comment, Harvard Dean said they were appalled. The accused morgue manager has pleaded not guilty. Unlock all episodes of COVID up body brokers ad free right now by subscribing to the Binge podcast channel. Not only will you immediately unlock all episodes of this show, but you'll get binge access to an entire network of other great true crime and investigative podcasts, all ad free. Plus, on the first of every month, subscribers get a binge drop of a brand new series. That's all episodes all at once. Unlock your listening now by clicking subscribe at the top of the COVID up show page on Apple Podcasts, or visit to get access wherever you get your podcasts.


One of the most interesting things to me about Philip's story is not only how easy it is to get into body brokering, but also that it's legal.


It's harder to open up a hot dog stand on the corner than it is to take possession of a body. You don't need any licensing. You don't need any paperwork.


To better understand why that is, I spoke with someone who spent the better part of a decade investigating criminal body brokers.


My name is Paul Micah Johnson, and I'm a special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Initially, I was studying marine biology and then neurobiology in graduate school with the intent on becoming a college professor. Investigating crime is you're looking at a lot of different possibilities, which is similar to a lot of different scientific hypotheses, and you're trying to find out what is ultimately the truth.


Agent Johnson is the lead investigator on a national dragnet of body broker cases, codename death harvester.


The years 20 13, 20, 14, 20 15, those were sort of the high points of the death harvester investigation. And we had ultimately executed search warrants in Michigan, Arizona, and Chicago. And those were fairly high profile because we had seized literally 15 tons of human remains, thousands of documents. In the beginning, when I first started looking at it, I was confused. I thought that surely it cannot be legal to sell human body parts. And in fact, that's partially true. The law states that you cannot sell human body parts if they're going to be transplanted into another individual, but it is perfectly legal to sell them for, say, medical research, for education.


The law Johnson is talking about is the uniform Anatomical Gift act. It was passed by Congress in the 1960s in response to medical advancements in the field of tissue transplant. The law was adopted in some form by most states, and it did a pretty good job of laying a legal framework for how organs could be donated.


Most people are familiar with organ donation, that is, for life saving. If someone's in a car accident and they die, but they have still a functional heart or kidneys or liver, those things can be transplanted into another sick individual and give them a chance at an extended life. Many states have a place where you could put that on your driver's license, and often there'll be a little red heart, and it'll say organ donor. And so that is well understood and well respected. The world of organ donation.


But the law was virtually silent about the other side of the donation process.


The world of body donation, I think, is a lot less clear to people. There is an entire another world that is, it's more body parts, and that is after doctors leave medical school, they still need to continue to practice surgery. They need to develop new surgical techniques, medical device companies. They need to develop new implants. There is a constant needed supply of human body parts. If you're, say, working on dental surgery, you certainly don't need a whole body. What you need is a human head.


And while doctors do need bodies to study for training, education, and research, there's virtually no oversight over how brokers buy, sell, and handle human remains. It's a total wild west.


I mean, it depends on the state, but the barriers to entrance are nonexistent. If you have a garage, if you have a sawzall, you can start cutting up bodies and you can start selling them.


Enter the deceptive body broker who blurs the lines between organ donation and body donation and capitalizes on that confusion. That brings us right back to Megan Hess. And she didn't just blur the lines, she took it a step further. She flat out lied, claiming that a donated spine could help someone walk again or that donating a body could lead.


To a cure for cancer.


Body donation is simply not used for cancer research. It's almost never used for disease research. But if you can pull on the heartstrings of donors at the time when they are most suffering, shortly after the death of a loved one, and you can say that their death is going to bring about some good, and we're going to help to find a cure from what they died from. That's pretty powerful message, but it's a lie.


And that's what Megan and Shirley were.


Doing, and that is what they were.


Doing the right way to donate your body. It's all about transparency and doing your research. Yes, your body can go to a medical school that treats it with respect, but without regulation or better policing, your body could be sold for purposes you're not okay with.


Like the Pentagon has purchased bodies for blast experiments, donated bodies can wind up being used to train cadaver dogs.


Before I reported this story, I didn't know all that. I didn't know the difference between organ and body donation. So the people who trusted Megan Hess can't be blamed for not knowing that either. The first time agent Johnson learned about Megan Hess, he was working on another body broker case.


The industry itself is fairly small, so most of the players know each other. And one of the players that I had interviewed, he was telling me about various suppliers that he had dealt with over the years. And he mentioned Megan Hess in Colorado, and he said that he had originally done business with her, and he had received a shipment of human heads that were contained in Ziploc bags, not medical containers. They were in Ziploc bags dripping blood, and the heads had not been shaven, which is something that is standard in this industry, both for hygiene and to remove the individuality of the heads. And immediately, he stopped doing business with Megan Hess.


In 2017, Johnson was in his office in Detroit when a reporter named Brian Groh paid him a visit.


Brian worked for the international news agency Reuters.


He was doing a large piece, trying to understand this whole industry the for profit selling of human body parts. And as part of that, he asked questions about a company and individuals that I had heard of in Montrose, Colorado.


So here was agent Johnson hearing something else about Sunset Mesa. And this reporter Brian told agent Johnson that something there seemed off.


He had a number of questions suggesting criminal activity from which I did not have answers for.


For instance, Brian was looking into what happened to Cactus Hollenbeck. Remember cactus, the marine who died and was supposed to be cremated by Sunset Mesa? But then his widow suspected something was wrong, and Brian helped her get the cremaines forensically tested.


And it turned out later, when looking through the remains, there were metal pieces that should not have been associated with that person. And to me, you just can't have that. You just can't have that in a cremation, because right away, that suggests that someone is swapping cremated remains. And that was the moment I realized I needed to dig further into this montrose, Colorado case.


Next time on Body brokers, the FBI pays Sunset Mesa funeral home a visit.


I'm a victim specialist with the FBI. I'm calling because you've been identified as someone that may have had a loved one that was cremated at Sunset Mesa.


Sean opened the lid, and he pulled the bag out, and I'll never forget his face. And he nope, nope, nope. Not gonna do it. And he goes, I'm not tampering with any evidence. This was her company. It was her organization. It was her funeral home. It was her body donation company. Megan decided this. Megan did these things. This was Megan's decision.


She's a light to the community. She does all these great things for the community, but in reality, no, she's not.


Cover up Body Brokers is a production of campsite media and Sony Music Entertainment. The show was reported and hosted by me, Ashley Fonts. Elizabeth Van Brocklin is the senior producer. The associate producers are Rachel Young and Callie Hitchcock. Field producers were Megan, Bernie, and Monique laborer. The editors were Emily Martinez, Matt Share, and Anthony Puccillo. Sound design, mix and original music by Garrett Tiedeman. Fact checking by Sarah Ivory. Recording by Jimmy Guthrie at Arcade 160 Studios in Atlanta, a special thanks to our operations team, Doug Slaywin, Ashley Warren, Sabina Mara, and Destiny Dingle. Campsite Media's executive producers are Josh Dee, Vanessa Gregoriatis, Adam Hoff, and Matt Scherr. If you enjoy cover up body brokers, please rate and review the show wherever you get your podcasts.


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