Little Shop of Horrors

Allen Tyler had a good job looking after corpses that had been donated to the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. He stored them, chopped them up, packed and shipped the parts. Then he got a wonderful idea: he would start his own enterprise on the side. What's a few toenails among friends?

August 2003By Comments

IN APRIL 2000 ALLEN TYLER made a lot of money in fingernail and toenail sales: $4,380, to be exact. That month his office received a purchase order for a batch of human nails from Watson Laboratories, a pharmaceutical company located in Salt Lake City. After shipping the order, he sent Watson an invoice, requesting that payment be made to him personally and that the check be sent to his home address, in Galveston. Watson had no qualms about that, even though the address was different from the one on its purchase order. Watson’s purchasing agent did, however, make a small adjustment to reflect the fact that, while she had ordered 248 fingernails and 44 toenails, Tyler’s invoice specified slightly different amounts: 256 fingernails and 24 toenails.

Tyler, then 54, worked as the supervisor of the Willed Body Program at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, a unit of the state university system that includes a hospital and a medical school. His job was to oversee the inventory of dead bodies that had been willed to the university for scientific research. He numbered and tagged them. He kept some cadavers whole for the medical students and cut the rest into parts. He shipped some of the parts to other institutions. He also wrote invoices for parts and shipping charges, sent whole bodies and body parts to be cremated, returned ashes to the families that requested them, and answered queries from the public about the program. He ordered equipment, such as the “AN-65 series cadaver lift.” He met the donors in person when they enrolled in the Willed Body Program, and then he encountered those same people again after they died, steering them into the lab to bathe them, shave their heads, and dismember them if required. It was a vocation that required a fair amount of customer contact, which suited him fine. He was personable, even genteel. The balding, barrel-chested Tyler did not crack jokes; he did not raise his voice. In spite of the grim world in which he lived, he had a mild sense of humor: In his office he had a small ceramic-frog doorstop that burped “ribbit.” He was reliable and hardworking, which is why he had been promoted to supervisor.

That was his official job, anyway. The nails were another matter entirely. They were part of Tyler’s side business as a body-parts consultant and entrepreneur. He had started freelancing several years before, fueled by the scientific-research industry’s booming, $500-million-a-year market for body tissues. Tyler served as a consultant to medical seminars that needed to procure and handle corpses. Business was good. Earlier that same month, he had billed a client $3,500 for cutting up corpses in Colorado Springs. And he had diversified into the equally lucrative trade in toenails and fingernails, which he harvested from dead bodies at UTMB and sold. For a modestly paid government employee, he was doing very well.

He was also headed for trouble. As a result of his capitalist endeavors, last year Tyler found himself at the center of one of the biggest scandals in the willed-body industry of the past century. It began when he testified before a grand jury in April 2002 that, working as a consultant, he had cut up bodies for a Riverside, California, company that had obtained them under false pretenses. (They had not been willed to science.) UTMB was embarassed by that, but it was nothing compared with what happened next. A month later, university officials discovered that Tyler had routed checks to his home that should have gone to the university, and fired him. The implication was that the university had not known that Tyler was conducting his own side business selling parts. Soon after that, the FBI launched an investigation, presumably into the question of whether Tyler had profited illegally from the interstate sale of body parts.

But those were not the only irregularities in Tyler’s work. In July the scandal broke in the pages of the Houston Chronicle and the Galveston County Daily News, which reported not only that Tyler had been fired but that he had mishandled and misidentified donors’ cremains (the products of cremation) that families had requested be returned to them. That same month, more than 70 angry families filed a lawsuit against UTMB, Tyler, and other parties, claiming that they had violated their agreements with willed-body-program donors.

Ever since the story appeared in the local papers, there has been a virtual lockdown on information about the case. Tyler, who remains unindicted, has never commented publicly and refused repeated requests by Texas Monthly for an interview; through his attorney, he denied any wrongdoing. UTMB, citing the many lawsuits against it, has restricted interviews with its willed-body-program staff. The current president of the Anatomical Board of the State of Texas, Ron Philo, who supervises the state’s willed-body programs, has refused to comment on the case. Reconstructing the story thus required pursuing other channels of information, which included: some 20,000 documents that UTMB reluctantly released through a Public Information Act request, hundreds of pages of trial transcripts and lawyers’ interrogatories, and dozens of interviews with sources at UTMB and in the medical and scientific communities in Galveston and elsewhere, as well as with acquaintances of Allen Tyler.

At the end of last year, as the crisis swirled around Tyler and UTMB, the body-parts industry came under the sort of sharp scrutiny it rarely receives. It has long operated in a sort of regulatory twilight, with minimum state oversight and no federal control at all. People began to ask unpleasant questions about what had happened—specifically—to their loved ones after they had died. Few were prepared for the unsettling answers they got.

THE STRANGE ENVIRONMENT IN WHICH Allen Tyler worked—the dead side of medecine—is a placefew people want to know anything about. It is a morbid little world of cadavers floating in phenol and glycerin baths, body parts stashed in freezers, FedEx shipments of breasts, knees, and spines, and grisly medical-school dissections. It is the abstract notion of “willing your body to science” made gruesomely real. If it is a largely unregulated world, that is in part because it is difficult to get outraged about what happens to a dead person who has donated himself to science. These people are, after all, dead.

But that would overlook the horrifying history of lawlessness where the dead are concerned. The worst cases are straight out of an Edward Gorey cartoon. Tales of body-snatching in the 1800’s—digging up corpses and selling them to medical schools—were common enough. The most shocking incidents, however, are more current. According to human-rights activists, in 1992 at least thirteen indigents in Barranquilla, Colombia, were killed by the national police and sold for $150 each to the Universidad Libre for scientific purposes. In 2000 the Orange County Register‘s five-part series about the tissue-banking industry found that the Los Angeles County coroner was selling organs and tissue from accident and homicide victims to researchers without the families’ permission.

As a result of incidents like these, there are certain laws about how the dead must be treated: bodies must be given with consent and properly labeled, handled, and transported; if you request one, you must state clearly why you need it; when families ask that ashes be returned, they must be the right ashes. And most importantly, no one may profit from the sale of bodies or body parts. Yet, supervision by the state anatomical board is minimal.

The willed-body programs themselves have relatively simple conventions. Altruistic donors sign papers stating their wishes, and when they die, they end up in labs like Tyler’s at UTMB. Universities and hospitals use the cadavers as needed by their medical programs, then they share the remaining bodies with other scientific institutions.

There is currently a great demand for that surplus, especially from pharmaceutical companies and medical institutions, and Texas has long been a major supplier. Because Texas is a populous state and is home to ten willed-body programs at state universities, it collectively receives about 1,500 bodies annually, usually more than any other state. On average, at UTMB, 150 cadavers are used every year by students and researchers and 150 go to other institutions nationwide.

Those surplus corpses are, in effect, sold, though not for profit. The prices buyers pay are meant to cover all of the services pertaining to the cadavers, including the salaries of employees like Tyler, overhead, and handling and transportation. This makes UTMB’s willed-body program self-supporting. Though there are state laws against profiteering, there is still the law of supply and demand. And in times of great demand, prices for parts go up, sometimes quite steeply.

IN 1965 ALLEN TYLER GOT the weirdest job a bright, somewhat eccentric recent high school graduate could ask for: UTMB anatomy technician. While his fellow classmates were scrubbing bits of fish and rice off dirty plates at the Island’s many seafood restaurants, Tyler was assisting with UTMB’s dead-body inventory, noting which cadavers were to stay in the lab for the medical students and which were to be sent to other institutions.

He had first come to UTMB in 1962, as a sixteen-year-old high school sophomore. Back then, he worked at a sandwich shop at the university. He was a large, reserved teenager who had already developed a distinctive—some would say odd—personal style. He was sometimes seen walking to Galveston’s Central High, the segregated black school he attended, in an ascot and a derby. In his junior year he bought a red-and-white Corvair with a red-leather interior. He read Ian Fleming spy novels and Esquire magazine. In 1964, while still in high school and making sandwiches at UTMB, he married a churchgoing woman ten years his senior who suffered from a serious vision impairment that made her legally blind. Upon graduation, when many of his classmates were going to college, Tyler settled into married life with his wife and new baby girl and searched for a job with better pay. A year later, he made the jump from the sandwich shop to the body lab.

Tyler did well at the new job and stuck with it. In 1975 he was promoted to the position of supervisor of anatomical services. He prepared the bodies for students, passed out the knives and saws, cared for the “natural curiosities” display (two-headed animals and the like), and kept the perfume of chemicals and decay to a minimum. Once in a while he received a particularly difficult piece of work: for example, a man who had fallen off a roof headfirst into some tar. But no gift to the program was wasted. And Tyler was scrupulous about labeling and sorting the bodies. He noted which bodies could be cremated en masse and stored in one of the large drums on hand, and whose cremains were destined to be returned to families. This was an important part of his job: Even though it is understood that a willed body will be cut up or dissected, some families still want to be assured that they will receive the ashes of their loved ones.

By the eighties, Tyler had done so well that the entire willed-body program was basically left in his charge. Working with a secretary and a lab technician, he went about his business in Old Red, the gorgeously ornate UTMB structure built in 1891, the year that UTMB opened its first session, with 23 students and 13 faculty members. He spent some of his time in the anatomy lab, which was on the top floor of the building. More often than not, however, he was in the cutting room or in his office, which was a disorganized jumble of papers.

Over the years, Tyler discovered the tricks of the trade: He learned that a body takes up to four days to defrost; he knew how to deal with the bodies’ liquids; he learned to prep bowels and fix leakage. He familiarized himself with the organization of the students’ lab: The red buckets with garbage bags under the tables were for skin and fat only; the other red containers were for scalpel blades and sharp items. Much of his job as supervisor also involved disarticulation, the process by which a body is cut up into its various parts so that it can be used most efficiently.

But the body-parts business was changing in several important ways. In the eighties Johnson and Johnson, Tyco, Boston Scientific, and other companies in the medical-technology business were inventing advanced surgical equipment at a rapid pace. Instruments facilitating their new methods of surgery required training courses. Some seminars used plastic organs and bodies, but often models were not adequate for training. As the number of seminars increased, so did the demand for cadavers and body parts. Since Texas had a surplus of bodies, Tyler found himself spending more and more of his time filling orders for fresh frozen heads, feet, shoulders, and elbows.

Meanwhile, prices were going up, putting Tyler in the awkward position of having to deliver the news to his customers. A disarticulated torso could fetch about $7,000 in the late nineties, but the price soon shot up to $9,000. On one occasion, Tyler received an e-mail asking, “Is $650 still the right price for these [full leg specimens]?” to which he responded, “Attached is listing to date. I will be doing another pair on Monday that fits your protocol, almost there as you can see, I predict less than two weeks, and I will be ready to ship. Unfortunately prices have gone up. The cost for a whole lower extremity is $813. Even the cost [of] knees [has] gone up ($500) also, however, I am holding the line to what I quoted you on the knees ($400 each).” None of this revenue was technically “profit,” since by law it went directly back into the program to cover costs.

While demand boomed, the cremains from disarticulated parts became more and more difficult to track. If an arm was sent out of state and the family had requested the body’s cremains, the arm had to be sent back to be with the rest of the body so that, for example, anything pertaining to Aunt Myrna would remain with the rest of Aunt Myrna. Eventually, her separately cremated parts would be boxed together and the family could receive her in total. The rising number of shipments of various parts to various places made cremation reassembly complicated, but Tyler appeared to be able to handle it.

In 1998 Allen Tyler’s life changed. In the middle of a rapidly expanding body-parts market, he decided to go into business for himself. In the fall of that year, Tyler was contacted by an Italian immigrant living in New Jersey named Agostino Perna. Perna was one of a new breed of middlemen who both arranged medical seminars and training courses and did the less pleasant work of rounding up body parts. A middleman could make a low-six- figure annual income from services rendered, charging a group of twenty to fifty doctors $750 to $3,000 each per class. He could also make use of one body part several times and charge for each use, so an elbow left untouched in one course could be amputated from its arm and used in another class. Perna eventually founded three companies of which he was the primary stockholder: Innovations in Medical Education and Training (IMET), which coordinated conferences and arranged doctors’ hotels, air flights, and course literature; Mobile Medical Training Unit, which supplied the bodies and on-site support technicians; and Surgical Body Forms, which designed latex models. Where he needed help was with the handling of cadavers and body parts. That’s where Tyler came in.

At Perna’s urging, Tyler became his consultant and guide through the body-parts transactions. Perna offered him all-expenses-paid trips to weekend seminars, where he was responsible for keeping the bodies in good condition, cutting and preparing them, and preventing their ripe scent from fouling the air. The two had a loose business arrangement with no set pricing, and Tyler would be paid anywhere from $600 to $3,500 a day. Tyler sometimes worked from seven in the morning to midnight. Often, he provided parts from UTMB. This was not against the law, but it was certainly unconventional and invited the possibility that Tyler could give preferential treatment to Perna in the form of easier access to parts and lower prices. “Let’s say it may not be illegal,” says Ronn Wade, the director of the Anatomical Services Division of the University of Maryland School of Medicine and a co-chair of the Anatomical Services Committee for the American Association of Clinical Anatomists. “The question is, Is it a conflict of interest? And if it’s not a direct conflict of interest, does it have that appearance?”

The work with Perna was exciting and profitable. Tyler called an old friend one day and told him he was finally getting out of Galveston to see the world. “I’m flying out to California,” he said. “I guess they have a program and I guess I’m suited for the things they are doing out there.”

“Oh, that’s great, Tyler,” his friend said. “Get your camera, man. You’re going to places I won’t see.”

Tyler sometimes got paid to be on call. According to Perna’s deposition in the civil suit against UTMB, “If [Tyler] could not attend the course, he was still paid a consulting fee because he was on standby for me to call with questions.” But his freelance work would go beyond simple consulting: 1998 was also the year he started his fingernail and toenail venture. The idea was this: He’d peel the nails off the cadavers and sell them, then route the checks to his home. There were potential problems. The corpses involved belonged to the UTMB willed-body program, and there are state laws against taking personal profit from the sale of parts. But who would be watching? “Right now there are more laws and regulations that apply to the interstate shipment of commercial commodities, such as cotton, than cover the interstate movement of human bodies or body parts used in medical education and research,” says Todd Olson, Wade’s co-chair of the Anatomical Services Committee.

And so Tyler began writing his invoices to Watson Laboratories, sending them nails, which they would use for tests with experimental drugs, and receiving checks made out to him. According to invoices released by UTMB through a Public Information Act request, between November 1999 and August 2001 Tyler received at least $18,210 from Watson from the sale of fingernails and toenails. Watson officials later told the Houston Chronicle that they believed Tyler had been turning the money over to UTMB. And UTMB officials in Galveston felt that they had had no reason to suspect that anything untoward was happening either, with toenails, fingernails—or more essential parts. Not, at least, until the incident in Riverside.

WHILE TYLER WAS DEVELOPING HIS new line of business, other anatomical specialists around the country were seeing similar opportunities in the expanding body-parts market. In 1999 an official at the University of California, Irvine, named Christopher Brown, who was overseeing the university’s willed-body program, was fired on allegations that he had sold spines for personal profit to researchers in Phoenix for a total of $5,125. The Irvine story caused a stir in willed-body circles.

But that was a minor operation compared with the one Michael Francis Brown (no relation to Christopher) was soon running in Riverside, California—with the assistance of Allen Tyler. The two men had met when Agostino Perna’s company IMET was putting on a seminar in the San Diego area in early 2000. Brown was the owner of three companies in Riverside: Pacific Family Funeral Home, a crematorium called Pacific Cremation Care, and a body-supply company called Bio-Tech Anatomical. IMET needed a place where Tyler could prepare the bodies, and Bio-Tech Anatomical loaned its lab for IMET’s use.

Brown watched Tyler work, and he was impressed. He told Tyler that he had more frozen cadavers than he could handle and did not know how to disarticulate them. And so Tyler, assuming that the bodies in question had been willed to Brown’s private company—as it is legal to do in some states—began working with Brown on a regular basis.

The job paid well. For twelve weekends between February 2000 and February 2001, Brown paid Tyler $2,500 a weekend plus expenses to disarticulate heads, shoulders, knees, elbows, and legs from 160 cadavers. Brown appreciated Tyler’s work; he told Tyler that he would like to make him a business partner. There were, however, slight imperfections with this partnership.

The main problem was that Brown could be disturbingly unprofessional. On one occasion, Tyler arrived at the Bio-Tech lab to find a body whose spine had been sloppily cut out of its torso. Tyler discovered that Brown had performed this ham-handed dismemberment himself. Apparently, Tyler thought, Brown had wanted to impress some hanger-on at the facility.

Then there was the situation Brown had put himself in with his 21-year-old assistant, Jennifer Bittner. Bittner had started performing clerical work for Brown in 1999, and she had also helped Tyler disarticulate bodies. She would rinse the blood off the parts and place them in plastic trash bags. The bundles were then taken to the freezers, where Brown kept an inventory of parts. In the final three months of 1999, Bittner became romantically involved with Brown, and in December that relationship soured and Bittner left the company. In February 2001, a year after her departure, she told a friend at the Riverside County coroner’s office what she knew about her ex-lover’s business.

This was a serious problem for Brown, since not all of the bodies had in fact been willed to his company after all; some were the corpses of indigents in the Riverside community. Brown had been underbidding his competitors in the area by a $200 to $500 margin for the county contract to cremate indigents, a margin he could afford since he didn’t cremate them at all: He stored them until Tyler could help sever them into parts, and then he sold them through his Bio-Tech company. A few days later, after Bittner talked to the coroner’s office, a team of sheriff’s deputies raided Brown’s crematorium and found 5 heads, 74 cadavers, and 128 other body parts.

Soon after Brown’s arrest, Tyler got a phone call from him. According to Tyler’s April 2002 grand jury testimony, Tyler asked Brown what had happened. Brown said that Bittner had told the authorities about him. “What he said to me initially was that Jennifer was never back there [in the lab]. He intimated that perhaps that’s what my testimony would be . . . I told him I wasn’t going to do it, that she was back there.”

Yet in spite of his claims that he wasn’t aware of wrongdoing in Riverside, his testimony made it clear that he had witnessed convincing evidence of impropriety. He said he had cut up an embalmed body, one that had obviously been prepared for a viewing, not a medical lab—a request anybody in the body-supply business would consider highly unusual.

Q: And when you did disarticulations for Michael Brown, did you ever disarticulate an embalmed body?

Tyler: The one that stands out in my mind was an autopsied body that was initially put on the table. And once I started working on it, I discovered that it appeared to be embalmed.

Q: What about the body led you to believe it had been embalmed?

Tyler: Well, the consistency of the tissue was not that of a fresh body.

Q: And that’s based on your experience as an anatomist?

Tyler: Another clue that it was an autopsied body is it did have the sawdust in it, and that’s a classic clue right there that it had been embalmed—the sawdust and the way it was sewn up.

Q: Did you mention your observations to anyone?

Tyler: Yes.

Q: Who did you mention your observations to?

Tyler: Mr. Brown.

Q: What did you tell him in that regard?

Tyler: That this was an autopsied body. It appeared to be autopsied—an embalmed body.

Q: What was his response?

Tyler: I don’t remember exactly what the—at the time what the response was. “Oh, gee,” or something maybe to that nature.

Q: Did you continue with the disarticulation of that body?

Tyler: I think the head was saved, and I don’t think anything else was saved off of that. Maybe just the head.

“A funeral-home body should have automatically thrown up a red flag,” says Ronn Wade. “I don’t know of any program in the U.S. that would accept an autopsied or embalmed body.”

BY 2002 RESIDENTS OF TYLER’S block had become more than a bit curious about their quiet neighbor. They guessed that he made only a little more than $50,000 and that his house hadn’t cost much more than their modest $50,000 homes. But he was regularly remodeling the place, installing new appliances and carpeting. He drove a green 2000 Lexus SUV, priced at $40,000 the year he bought it. His colleagues were becoming suspicious too. The news of Tyler’s testimony created a huge buzz in the willed-body community. Then, a routine audit conducted after the director of UTMB’s program, Dr. Andrew Payer, left unexpectedly, revealed the paperwork routing checks to Tyler’s home address. On May 1, with campus security on alert, university administrators met with Tyler and asked him to explain why he had asked Watson Laboratories to send checks to his home. In an e-mail response to my questions, UTMB officials said that Tyler’s explanation was not adequate and that he was escorted off the campus and, eight days later, fired. They said the reason he was fired was that he “may have been diverting state resources for personal gain.” Soon after being fired, he was visited at his home by FBI agents, who were tipped off by UTMB.

But UTMB’s suffering was just beginning. Apparently Tyler’s record-keeping had gotten sloppy. The institution admitted that under Tyler’s direction, the cremains of willed-body-program participants were often dusted together and sifted into a single drum—even those that were supposed to be matched up with their corresponding parts and sent to families. But Tyler hadn’t told the families that the cremains were mixed, and so families could not be sure that their urns contained their loved ones at all.

On July 11, 2002, UTMB president John Stobo stopped accepting and exporting bodies through the university’s willed-body program indefinitely and wrote a letter of explanation and apology to the editor of the Galveston County Daily News: “Approximately two weeks ago, we realized that inadequate record-keeping has made it impossible for us to determine in every case precisely whose ashes donors’ families received,” he wrote. “As a result, we now believe that, beginning in the summer of 1999, ashes of some of the donors who had requested that their remains be returned to their families were instead commingled with ashes intended for burial at sea.”

One of the most disturbing revelations to the family members of willed-body donors was that Tyler had had little supervision in his job at UTMB. It was bad enough that he had mixed the ashes, but it was UTMB’s lack of oversight that opened the floodgates for lawsuits from the grieving families, who filed against every possible offender: UTMB, Allen Tyler, Agostino Perna, Andrew Payer, and the UTMB cremation subcontractor, EnviroClean Management Services.

The public was soon treated to the gory details of Tyler’s operation. Houston Chronicle newspaper headlines read “The Body Business: Demand Remains High for Human Tissue and Organs” and “Fees for Cadavers Allegedly Inflated: UTMB Body Parts Involved in Dispute.” The hearings elicited even more graphic details. At a hearing in May 2003, David George, one of the plaintiffs lawyers, stood before a room packed with willed-body-program donors’ family members. He displayed an enlarged copy of a UTMB record showing that “Jane Doe” went for $1,700 within a matter of months: Her head went for $450, her spine for $350, her breasts for $200, her knees for $700. She was received on January 12, 2000 and disarticulated the following day. Some in the room covered their eyes; others clasped their hands to their mouths to keep from gasping. And what George was describing was legal.

IN THE MONTHS AFTER THE scandal broke, Tyler retreated to his small, square, salmon-colored home on the west end of Galveston Island. He spent his time in the house with the hurricane shutters closed, the lights dimmed. Those who have known him over the years say that his depression comes and goes and that his weight has dropped from 200 to 160 pounds.

Though the FBI investigation continues, Tyler has not been charged with any crime. The FBI and the U.S. attorney refuse to speculate on what sort of sentencing he might face if he is convicted. But Tyler’s erstwhile associate Michael Francis Brown has been charged with 144 counts of embezzlement and 128 counts of “mutilating grave remains” and faces up to 186 years in state prison. Lawyers for the plaintiffs say that the multimillion-dollar civil suit against UTMB and Tyler will most likely come to trial in 2004. Tyler is scheduled to give a deposition this month.

One late afternoon this spring, as the sun was going down and shedding a diffuse light between the leaves of the trees, I visited Tyler at his home to try one last time to get an interview. He spoke to me from behind the hurricane shutters in his doorway. I could not see his face, only a set of teeth, illuminated by the television’s fluorescence, moving behind a dark screen as he spoke in a low and serious voice, saying that nobody understood this business. He had no further comment. To take my card, he opened the door just enough to make room for his arm, then he retreated inside.

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