Texas traffic stop leads to grisly discovery

DALLAS -- On the face of it, the truck full of human heads could have been a Halloween prank or the makings of a scary movie.

It turned out to be neither, and a reminder that you should keep your wits about you when you donate your body to science.

"This is in the top five of the strangest things -- maybe the strangest -- that I've ever encountered," Hunt County, Texas, Justice of the Peace Aaron Williams said Monday.

Williams was called to the scene when a regular traffic stop Sunday morning by Royse City, Texas, police turned into a grisly discovery of severed heads in the back of a tractor-trailer.

Police said the truck driver was pulled over for speeding at about 2:30 a.m. on Interstate 30 at the Hunt County line. Because he was acting suspiciously, officers looked in the back and saw about two dozen embalmed human heads staring back at them from plastic bags and containers.

The driver couldn't produce documentation showing why he was hauling the heads, so police detained him until his company -- which authorities would not name -- faxed over the paperwork.

The heads were specimens used in medical training in Fort Worth, Texas, and were headed back to a company in Little Rock, Royse City police Lt. Jim Baker said.

The driver and his heads were allowed to go about 10:30 a.m.

"It really turned out to be much ado about nothing," Baker said. "When you are carrying human body parts, it's good to have some documentation that they are legitimate."

Williams said that even though police had determined that no crime had been committed, he felt the unceremoniously packed heads were being mistreated.

"It was completely and wholly inappropriate in my view," Judge Williams said.

While there's heavy federal oversight involved in the donation of organs and tissues to be used in transplant surgeries, there is little governance over whole-body donations -- or "donating your body to science."

Because of recent strides in medical equipment and surgeries, bodies for medical personnel to practice on are in greater demand and more expensive to get.

The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center declined to discuss its willed-body program or comment on how the medical school uses bodies in research and training.

Although medical schools such as the Southwestern school used to be the only place to donate your body, new companies have popped up. Now everyone wants your body.

In 2002, the director of the cadaver program at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston was fired after authorities said he made more than $4,000 by selling fingernails and toenails -- and, perhaps, other body parts -- to a pharmaceutical company.

The former director of the Willed Body Program at the University of California at Los Angeles was accused in 2004 of running a body-parts-for-profit scheme out of his office. It is illegal to sell the parts outright, but charging for processing and shipping is fair game. So body parts for research are now big business.

"There is more regulation about shipping a head of lettuce out of California than shipping a human head," said Dr. Todd R. Olson, director of the Anatomical Donation Program at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

Although donating your body for research is a great thing -- and ensures that exploration and understanding of the human body, diseases and cures will continue -- Olson stressed that you and your family have to ask questions before donating to anyone.

Ask how the body will be used, where it might go and if the parts will be kept together, among other issues.

"You have to ask questions, and you have to know what questions to ask," Olson said.

And, perhaps, consider specifying that you don't want your head in a plastic bag in the back of a truck.

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