PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — On a fall day in October of last year, Kimberly DiLeo found herself in disbelief. A friend had just called her about an event happening that weekend: Tickets on sale to an autopsy with VIPs getting front row seats and even touching the body of the deceased.
How could that happen? During a pandemic? DiLeo, the Chief Medical Examiner for Multnomah County, thought there was no way that could be allowed.
“No family should bear the horror or guilt associated with learning their loved one was put on display for paying members of the public to autopsy and touch their organs in a hotel ballroom,” DiLeo said.
DiLeo called the hotel, who was surprised it was happening, and canceled the event. But organizers found a new home just a few blocks away.
DiLeo then called Portland Police. She was told there were no laws that were broken. She called the Oregon Board of Health. She was told they had no authority to stop the matter.
And it went on, 70 people without protective clothing filed into a conference room.
“Families and individuals who donate their bodies to science do so with the expectation that their loved one will be treated respectfully to further legitimate medical research,” DiLeo said.
The loved one on the table, being cut open for strangers to see, was David Saunders, a 98-year-old veteran of the Korean and Second World Wars. He wished for his body to be used for the reason DiLeo described.
His widow, Elsie, relived the discovery of the abuse of her husband’s remains to the Multnomah County Commissioners Thursday.
“I am deeply hurt and frustrated that I was unable to save my husband from the violation of his remains. I was duped by selfish and immoral people for the sake of their personal monetary gain.” Elsie Saunders said.
Saunders said she had originally tried to donate her husband’s body to the medical school at Louisiana State University, but because he died of COVID-19, she could not.
“Added to the grief is the vision in my mind of his naked and defenseless body being dismembered like a butcher preparing an animal carcass for sale,” Elsie said.
She was referred to the company Med Ed Labs whose website says provides “medical and surgical education and training…”
Med Ed Labs then transferred Saunders’ remains to the company Death Science, which hosted the event on that October day in 2021.
Med Ed manager Obteen Nassiri says he didn’t expect the remains to be used for public display.
“Unbeknownst to us, this particular client had arranged it as part of [an] event which we don’t do that kind of thing. We had no knowledge at all. We are a very professional organization.” Nassiri said.
A simple Google search reveals Nassiri and his company’s records are not immaculate.
Death Sciences did not reply to KOIN in regard to this story, but has defended the autopsy as education to other outlets.
Hiller Moore, the district attorney for Baton Rouge Parrish where the Saunders lived, said he couldn’t disagree more with that assessment. He picked up David Saunders’sthe remains for Elsie, accompanied by family of Saunders.
As an investigator and district attorney, Moore said he has seen hundreds of autopsies throughout his career.
“To see what had occurred to this hero’s body…this body was not treated like anybody is treated any legitimate autopsy,” Moore said.
Moore also spoke to the Commissioners Thursday, saying he was shocked to find few ordinances or laws across the country prohibiting the public display of bodies for profit.
“You would think that we would not need this legislation, that through common morals this would not be allowed to happen. Unfortunately, we have been proven wrong.” Moore said.
Commissioners voted unanimously to regulate publicly displayed autopsies for profit. The Board of Health will fine organizers $1,000 per day of operation, the most allowed by state statute. The county will seize profits from the event and can issue further fines.
To many commissioners’ dismay, they could not create criminal penalties as punishment, as that responsibility is held to state and federal lawmakers. Many commissioners said they will push for further action at those levels.
“I can’t imagine how many times this has happened elsewhere and no one has raised the flag.” Deborah Kafoury said, the Multnomah County Chair.