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An indicted cadaver dealer claims prisoners tricked him into confessing his crimes by pretending to be terrorism fighters. He wanted to be one of them.

With his grisly trial just weeks away, indicted cadaver dealer Arthur Rathburn is fighting to prevent jurors from seeing some potentially damning evidence: A confession that he claims he was tricked into making by inmates posing as undercover terrorism fighters.

Rathburn wanted to be one of them, court records show, so he did what they told him to get into their secret group: He signed three confessions admitting his alleged crimes — cutting up bodies without consent and renting heads, arms and legs riddled with disease to unsuspecting medical researchers.

The confessions were complete with his thumbprint, obtained by using ink from a broken pen.

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Unbeknownst to Rathburn — who has been locked up since getting indicted almost two years ago — the inmates he thought were patriots working for the federal government were merely convicts looking to help themselves by giving the feds information about him.

And it worked.

The federal government plans to use Rathburn’s confessions against him at trial, which is scheduled to start Jan. 3. 

For the last two days, Rathburn has been in federal court in Detroit, arguing the confessions should be tossed because — he has claimed — they were obtained through trickery, bullying and without required government warnings.

“The confession wasn’t voluntary. He was strong-armed into signing this,” Rathburn’s lawyer, James Howarth, told the Free Press late Thursday, saying the government knew the inmates were fooling Rathburn, but didn’t care.

“This is a dangerous practice. It’s rife with getting confessions, which are either not voluntarily, or not even believable,” Howarth said.

According to Howarth, Rathburn was conned by fellow inmates into believing that if he came clean with his crimes, the Department of Justice would get him  out of prison, transport  him to the Middle East, where he would use his biomedical expertise to help fight terrorism and infiltrate Hezbollah. 

Howarth said jurors should not be allowed to see the three purported confessions, which were signed August 15, 16 and 17.

“If he’s guilty, convict him without this kind of evidence,” Howarth said.

The hearing on the purported confessions is expected to continue at 2:30 p.m. Friday before U.S. District Judge Paul Borman.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined comment on the issue, though prosecutors have argued that they are legally entitled to use Rathburn’s jailhouse confessions at trial.

Rathburn, a former University of Michigan morgue attendant who ran a body parts business out of Detroit, was indicted in January of 2016 following a years long federal investigation dubbed “Body Brokers.”  The FBI and border officials were on his trail for years, but it wasn’t until December 2013 that they zeroed in on him and raided his warehouse in Detroit, International Biological Inc.  Agents seized more than a thousand body parts — heads, hands, legs, torsos —  that were then stored in a deep freezer at the Wayne County Morgue.

His wife, Elizabeth Rathburn,  also was charged in the case, but cut a deal and has agreed to testify against her now-estranged husband. Elizabeth Rathburn pleaded guilty to wire fraud, admitting that she took human remains infected with HIV and hepatitis B to an anesthesiology conference in Washington, D.C., in 2012, claiming that the body parts were disease free when she knew otherwise.

The head of the company was Arthur Rathburn, who prosecutors allege purchased body parts from Arizona and Illinois suppliers, stored them in his Detroit warehouse,  then rented them out to medical and dental researchers with the help of his wife, who dealt with the customers.  It was a lucrative business. A human body is worth from $10,000 to $100,000 if sold in parts, court records show. Brains can fetch $600; elbows and hands $850.

If court records are any indication, Rathburn’s  trial will be full of  grisly exhibits. He allegedly committed many crimes, like cutting up bodies with chainsaws, shipping blood-filled coolers of fresh heads on commercial airliners — falsely claiming the blood was Listerine — and storing more than 1,000 body parts on ice at his warehouse. 

Though Rathburn’s name first surfaced a decade ago in a book called “Body Brokers,” he did not fall under the FBI’s radar until years later, when federal agents started tracking what appeared to be bizarre shipments arriving for Rathburn at Metro Airport, including a bucket full of human heads that arrived from Israel one year.

Before getting into the body parts trade as a private dealer, Rathburn was the coordinator of the University of Michigan’s anatomical donation program from 1984-90, but he got fired after he was caught selling bodies. In 1989, he started his own body broker business, Biological International, and ran it out of an industrial warehouse on Grinnell Avenue, near the old Detroit City Airport.

Rathburn is charged with wire fraud, aiding and abetting and making false statements. If convicted, he could face up to 20 years in prison.

Tresa Baldas can be reached at tbaldas@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @Tbaldas

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