It could have ended three years ago, when a leaky FedEx box containing an arm and legs turned up in Missouri. Or years before that, when a judge convicted him of embezzling money from the sale of a corpse that belonged to a medical school in California.
But nothing stopped Philip Joe Guyett Jr. from moving steadily eastward, mining gold from the lucrative body parts trade. Federal officials shut down this flesh-and-bone prospector in Raleigh, N.C., earlier this month, saying his products posed a danger to public health.
By then, he had supplied hundreds of tissues for knee repairs, spine surgeries and other medical procedures around the nation, many of them allegedly procured in an unsterile funeral home embalming room.
Despite his criminal record, he twice was able to register companies with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to provide tissue for transplants.
“Here’s a convicted felon who could pretty much go anywhere in the country and open a tissue recovery agency,” complained one tissue banker who refused to work with him, Ken Richardson of Nevada Donor Network. “That illustrates some of the problems with our existing regulatory structure.”
Guyett, 38, denies any wrongdoing, and insists he went out of business on his own accord some months back. No one yet knows how many people received tissue he supplied or what risks they may face. Companies have been quietly recalling his products from doctors and hospitals since early July.
Second gruesome scandal
Many who work in this field are outraged by the problem, the second big tissue scandal in a year, following one that led to criminal charges in New Jersey. But a three-month investigation by The Associated Press, published in June, found that lax oversight of the billion-dollar industry allows such situations to occur and puts the public at risk.
Donated cadaver tissue is used in more than a million procedures each year, and most of these operations do a lot of good.
But poor testing or treatment can lead to infections like hepatitis — and even death. Oversight is up to the FDA, but it relies on broad-brush rules. The American Association of Tissue Banks has strict standards, but the FDA does not require companies to join or to abide by these rules.
“In this business what really rules is: Do you have the goods? Can you give the body parts that I need? If you have a sketchy background, that doesn’t really make a difference. People just want to get the parts,” said Annie Cheney, author of the book “Body Brokers.”
Time after time, the smooth-talking, affable Guyett found ways to get the goods.
“Our mission,” he said when pitching tissue donation to residents of a suburban Raleigh retirement home last year, “is to give donors and their families an informed choice when considering making an anatomical gift.” In a video of the May 2005 talk, his audience, which included funeral directors, is seen applauding at times.
How and when Guyett got into the business isn’t clear. Parts of the resume he gave the group sponsoring his talk do not match what others say. Like being an anatomy instructor at Mount San Antonio College in Walnut, Calif., from 1997 to 1999. The school has no record of an instructor by that name, said human resources clerk Nerissa Uiagalelei.
The resume also lists Guyett as a “forensic specialist” from 1993 to 1997 in the Clark County, Nev., coroner’s office. But that title isn’t used at the Las Vegas agency and Guyett only volunteered there some weekends between 1994 and 1996 and was not a paid employee, said Coroner Michael Murphy.
Guyett’s “affiliation with our office appears to be exaggerated,” he added.
Undisputed, though, is that Guyett was an administrator at the willed body program at Western University in Pomona, Calif., in 1999 when police charged him with selling a cadaver to another school and keeping the $1,100 payment.
By the fall of 2003, he was in Las Vegas, registering Donor Referral Services with the FDA as a human tissue business. Soon afterward, Missouri police discovered human limbs in a leaky FedEx container Guyett’s company had shipped to a Missouri man who provides body parts for medical research and teaching. Much ado about nothing, Guyett told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
“Boxes break,” the newspaper quoted him as saying. “If a box leaks and it’s carrying a cornea, no one freaks.”
At the time, Guyett and his second wife, Jennifer, lived in Henderson, a Las Vegas suburb, in a four-bedroom home bought in November 2002 for $258,676.
But business apparently was slow. Officials at virtually every funeral home and crematorium in Las Vegas told the AP they didn’t do business with him, or even know him.
By the summer of 2004, Guyett was planning to relocate.
Larry Parker, president of Cremation Society of the Carolinas, a Raleigh funeral home, got a call from Guyett, whom he didn’t know, saying he was thinking of moving to be closer to the East Coast tissue banks he worked with.
By November 2004, Guyett had sold the Nevada house, with a profit of nearly $200,000, moved to Raleigh, and was paying Parker $1,000 for each successful donor family he referred and use of his embalming room.
“If they said, 'yes,' that’s as far as we went,” and Guyett would take over, interviewing the family about the donor’s medical history and suitability for transplant and obtaining consent, said Parker, who added that he had never been involved in tissue procurement before but became convinced “there’s a terrific need out there.”
Guyett tried to drum up business at a seminar sponsored by the Funeral Consumers Alliance of the Triangle and the American Association of Retired Persons; this was the gathering captured on video. Guyett played a funeral director in a skit involving a family arguing over whether to donate a dead father’s organs and tissues. Parker narrated the skit.
Guyett also pursued a related business — recycling titanium screws, implants and pins left over after cremation. Randy Bright, owner of Covenant Cremation Service in Wake Forest, N.C., was among those who let Guyett take these materials.
“There’s no money exchanged at all,” Bright said. “What are we going to do with them? We had no idea. It didn’t cost the family or anything for that. And we didn’t really have a way to dispose of them. ... It sounded like a good situation.”
When Guyett proposed expanding the recycling business through the Cremation Association of North America, he made business claims that have come into question. He gave Jack Springer, the group’s executive director, a list of 10 mortuaries that he said he dealt with regularly. Reached by AP, at least two — Miller-Jones of Hemet, Calif., and Serenity Mortuary Service of Phoenix — said they didn’t know Guyett or his company.
“He had never done anything with us,” said Timothy Hassett, owner of Serenity.
Likewise, Mike McGhee, general manager of Forbis & Dick Funeral Service in Greensboro, N.C., said he had no idea why Guyett listed his company as one of his business affiliates.
“I have been here for 27 years, and I can assure you that our firm has never had any dealings with this gentleman,” he said. “This is abhorrent and repugnant to me,” McGhee said of the concerns about Guyett. “I intend to find out why he used our name.”
Guyett even claimed a relationship with the federal government, telling the seminar crowd: “Over the last six months, we’ve recovered over 1,000 tissue specimens that were sent to the National Cancer Institute for research. Eighty percent of those donors were also accepted for transplant allografts.”
A cancer institute spokeswoman said neither Guyett nor his firm has been a supplier.
The FDA closed Guyett’s Raleigh operations down on Aug. 18.
According to the FDA’s order, Guyett altered paperwork on the health history and age of at least five dead donors, eliminating mention of factors like cancer and drug use that might make them ineligible.
In a brief interview last week at his two-story brick home in Wakefield Plantation, a new and upscale subdivision in north Raleigh, the goateed, slightly balding Guyett said the FDA did not force him out, and that he had done nothing wrong.
“I closed on my own free will to pursue other ventures. I’m out of the tissue recovery business as of December,” Guyett said.
Yet as recently as three months ago, Guyett repeated requests to David Campbell, owner of Cape Fear Crematory in Stedman, N.C., to use his facility on the outskirts of the Fort Bragg Army base to harvest tissues and medical implants. As he had in the past, Campbell declined, and said, “I’m kind of glad from what I’m seeing in the press these days.”
The Guyett case follows that of Biomedical Tissue Services, a now-defunct New Jersey company accused of plundering corpses for tissue without families’ permission, including the body of “Masterpiece Theatre” host Alistair Cooke. A former dentist, Michael Mastromarino, and three others face charges in that scandal.
That company, like Guyett’s, was not accredited by the tissue bank association. There are more under-the-radar tissue brokers out there than the FDA would like to think, said Areta Kupchyk, a former FDA attorney who helped write tissue regulations and consults with tissue companies.
“He’s probably an example of many small-timers around the country,” Kupchyk said of Guyett. “They’re the ones that are the most dangerous. They get a small niche and they can cause a lot of trouble.”