Thursday, March 31, 2011
Body Parts Cases at Standstill
By Olivier Uyttebrouck
Copyright © 2011 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer
A year after seven human heads turned up at a Kansas medical waste facility — sent special delivery from Albuquerque-based Bio Care Southwest — both criminal and civil cases against the nonprofit's founder have stalled.
Albuquerque police arrested Bio Care President Paul Montano, 32, of Los Lunas on charges of felony fraud just days after the gruesome discovery of heads, torsos and other human body parts in plastic containers at a Stericycle plant in Kansas City in March 2010. Police alleged that Montano had defrauded families who had donated bodies to the firm under contracts with Bio Care.
But the charges were dropped in June, and police ultimately decided they could not show Montano had committed felony fraud, Albuquerque police spokeswoman Sgt. Trish Hoffman said this week.
"We tried at the time to go after him criminally, and the (Bernalillo County District Attorney's Office) didn't think we had enough to do that," Hoffman said Tuesday.
"He had the right to have the bodies," she said.
Bio Care advertised itself as a low-cost alternative to traditional funeral services, providing body parts to medical researchers. Montano told investigators he "harvested" organs and other body parts requested by medical researchers, then stored the remains of the bodies in refrigerators.
Stericycle incinerates medical waste, including soft tissue and organs, and sometimes limbs, but never human heads or torsos, police said at the time. The firm contacted law officers March 20, 2010, after workers found a human skull among the ashes in Stericycle's incinerator.
The New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator worked for months to identify 133 separate body parts seized from Bio Care's warehouse in Albuquerque's Northeast Heights. By July, medical investigators had identified 45 bodies, which were either returned to family members or cremated at a cost to the city of about $10,000.
Bio Care suspended operations in August, the same month Montano and Bio Care filed for U.S. Bankruptcy Court protection, state and court records show.
Montano's former attorney, Rudolph Chavez of Albuquerque, said last year that Montano had broken no laws and fully complied with contracts with family members. Chavez said in April 2010 that Bio Care was required by contract only to provide partial remains, or a "ceremonial amount" of cremation ashes, to families.
Chavez declined recent requests for an interview. An employee said Chavez had resigned as Montano's attorney earlier this year.
Montano's phone in Los Lunas has been disconnected and efforts to reach him this week were unsuccessful.
In lieu of criminal charges, city attorneys plan to file a lawsuit against Montano to recoup the costs of the investigation, Hoffman said. She did not know when the city planned to begin civil action.
Three civil lawsuits filed last year by family members foundered in August when Montano and Bio Care filed for bankruptcy protection, said Eric Loman, an Albuquerque attorney who represents six families.
Montano and Bio Care lack financial assets or insurance policies to compensate families, he said.
Loman said families he represents remain eager for police to move forward with criminal charges against Montano.
"They would really like answers from the criminal justice system," he said.