During a year-long investigation, W5 probed the dark and often illegal side of the “body broker” industry in the U.S. What we discovered is a world where noble donations in the name of science give way to nightmarish facilities and a trade in body parts for profit.

Our focus is Arthur Rathburn, a Detroit body broker who bought cadavers that had been donated to legitimate non transplant tissue banks to be used for science. But that’s not what happened. Rathburn would buy donated cadavers, dissect them and sell or lease the body parts to private companies. The bodies were used for everything from displays at medical seminars and workshops to crash and ballistics testing.

But W5’s investigation doesn’t stop at the American border. In an interview, Arthur Rathburn’s former delivery driver tells Sandie Rinaldo exactly where in Canada he and Rathburn delivered American-sourced cadavers.

Rathburn smuggled specimens across the Detroit-Windsor border by using falsified documents and, in some cases, by concealing the parts from Canadian customs agents.

Rathburn was convicted and is now serving a prison sentence that is under appeal. But a whistleblower who had been involved in the Rathburn investigation reveals to W5 that while that body broker may be in prison, others are believed to have taken up the shadowy business and continue the illicit cross-border smuggling of questionable specimens into Canada.

Sandie Rinaldo's first-person account of visiting a body donation centre

PHOENIX -- On a tree-lined street near downtown Phoenix, there is a non-descript, industrial-looking, one-story building, which could easily pass for a wholesale furniture warehouse.

But once inside the secured main entrance and the decorated green space, it quickly becomes apparent, appearances can be deceiving.

This is the headquarters of Research for Life Arizona, a for-profit, non-transplant tissue bank, a place where medical schools and labs can purchase whole cadavers, or body parts, like heads, arms or spines for research and education. In the U.S., the sale of human remains is perfectly legal.

Research for Life charges institutions a fee for its services; preparing, dissecting and delivering human body parts. Donor families are not paid, but they do receive the ashes of the unused portions of their loved ones, free of charge.

According to a survey conducted by Reuters, of seven so-called body brokers, a typical charge, for providing a whole body, is $5,000; $750 for a brain; and $500 for the use of a head.

With 1,500 donors a year, and 15,000 registered future potential donors, there is no question; Research for Life is a lucrative business.

Garland Shreves is CEO. He told CTV’s W5, “It is absolutely a business of making money. I’m not ashamed of that. The reality is you took a tour of this facility. Today we happen to be sitting in a room that has cost more than a million dollars to put equipment in.”

Inside Shreve’s large facility, there is a refrigeration area, where donated cadavers are stored; a procurement room, where the bodies are dismembered; a surgical area for medical courses; and a room where cremated remains are kept in urns to be returned to families.

Touring the facility is not for the faint-hearted. I was in the receiving area with W5 producer Allya Davidson, and cameraman Jerry Vienneau, when two large refrigeration vans pulled up. Inside were multiple cadavers. It’s difficult to absorb what you’re seeing in this surrealistic place, with its chemical smells.

The room where bodies are dismembered, called the procurement room, is eerie and overwhelming. We are sensitive to the loss of personal privacy in this clinical environment, where nakedness is exposed, and the sounds of a medical saw fill the air. Respect for the dead is on my mind. I cannot look. Davidson and Vienneau watch through the lens of cameras. In their minds, the scene unfolding before us is not real.

Garland Shreves speaks passionately about appreciation for those who are gone. He is proud of what happens inside his facility, and of the larger community he says it serves.

“You know, donors are very important to the process. Without them, we’re not going to be able to advance medicine like we have over the last four decades.”

Watch W5's “The Body Broker” on CTV, Saturday at 7pm