PRESCOTT, Ariz. — “Is it in a bag, or what is it?” the Yavapai County Sheriff’s deputy asked as she walked through the high desert northwest of Prescott.
The man walking in front of her had found a body part in the brush.
“No, it’s laying right there,” he said.
The deputy's body camera was rolling as she and another deputy walked near a fence and stopped.
There was blue gauze-like fabric scattered around. They thought it looked like fabric softener sheets. The fabric was wrapped around severed body parts.
The deputy took the witness back to his truck to give a statement and started securing the crime scene.
“I believe it’s a leg. That’s what we saw,” the deputy said into her radio.
More deputies arrived, each as puzzled as to the next. Crime scene technicians came and cataloged the body parts. There were 24 of them, ranging from knees to shoulders and entire arms and legs.
The next day, 50 miles away, a hunter called police to say he’d found a human skull.
A sheriff’s deputy drove north of Prescott, past large houses and larger ranches, and onto a dirt road where the hunters were waiting. His body camera was also turned on.
“I think they kind of threw some dirt and rocks and (expletive) over in the ditch there,” the hunter told the deputy.
The crime scene investigators descended on another field. They found two human heads laying on the ground, three more buried, and another body part that they couldn’t identify. Three of those heads were wrapped in the same blue gauze fabric found at the other crime scene.
When the body parts were examined, deputies found a metal tag on the body parts - all with the same label: Future Genex. The tags also had a Seattle-area address. A few Internet searches later, they’d found the owner and apparently sole employee off the company: Walter Mitchell.
“You trust them to take your loved one and treat them with respect,” Cheryl Patterson said, “and that’s not at all what happened.”
Cheryl and Doug Patterson were divorced but still friends.
When Doug died of heart failure in 2019, Cheryl was there. And she knew what he wanted.
“He said that he really would like to donate his body to science in hopes that he could help someone,” Cheryl said.
But Doug had too many health issues for the University of Washington’s willed body program. Instead, the university said a contractor recommended Future Genex and Walter Mitchell.
She said Mitchell was the only one they ever dealt with and he came and collected Doug’s body.
Future Genex would provide Doug’s body to medical training schools and research facilities. Medical training programs use donated body parts to train surgeons on new techniques or medical devices and body donation companies provide them.
But a year after Doug’s death, Future Genex closed up shop and Mitchell was on the road headed for Arizona. Police reports show a former colleague said Mitchell left with a U-Haul full of dry ice and five or six bodies.
A passport and a pipe bomb
A few days after finding the abandoned body parts, Yavapai County Sheriff’s investigators tracked Mitchell down to his apartment in Scottsdale.
They confronted him in the parking lot and began asking him about Future Genex. When they told him they had found body parts with the business’s metal tag attached, police reports show Mitchell said expletives and told police to talk to his lawyer.
They arrested him and began searching the apartment near the 101 and Via Linda. They took computer hardware and paperwork inside but also found a locked safe inside the apartment. A spare key on Mitchell’s keychain appeared to fit, so police opened it.
Inside, the police report said, was a “cylindrical object” about eight inches long with caps at both ends and a fuse sticking out of one cap.
It was a pipe bomb, sitting with Mitchell’s wife’s expired passport. She later told police she had no idea why he would have her passport.
Police cleared out the area and called the DPS bomb squad to remove it. When they examined the pipe bomb, they found it was real and filled with explosive material.
The police reports said Mitchell refused to answer any questions about the bomb.
A career as a body broker
Walter Mitchell spent nearly 30 years as a body broker. Public records show he started body donation businesses in Oregon, Washington, California and Arizona.
In Arizona, anyone can run a body donation business. They’re supposed to be licensed by the Arizona Department of Health but still aren’t.
In 2019, the Arizona legislature passed a law requiring body donation businesses to be licensed. Three years later, the Department of Health told 12 News it’s still in the “rule-making process.”
“She’s beautiful,” Marie Christianson said, picking up an old black and white photo of her mother.
Madine Wilson lived to be 104 years old.
She had worked in the University of Washington School of Medicine when she was younger. Marie believes that’s one reason she wanted to donate her body to science. She was also given Walter Mitchell’s name.
Marie and her brother, Evans Wilson, let Mitchell take Madine’s body.
“When they were done with it,” Evans Wilson said, “they would cremate it and give the remains back to us.”
And that’s all they thought about it. They got the askes back and got closure.
Until a detective called them.
“It was kind of shocking,” Marie said. “How could this happen? And how could this happen to my mom?”
The detective wanted a DNA sample to compare for a case he was working on. Body parts were found three states away in Arizona. Marie gave the detective the sample and waited for the results.
The test came back negative. None of the body parts matched Madine’s DNA. But the possibility was enough to concern Marie.
“I have questions,” Marie said. “I just have questions.”
“If they mishandled these other parts of this process, then am I assured this is my mom?” she asked.
“I know where her spirit is,” Evans Wilson said. “I’m not 100% sure where the remains of her body are.”
"An evil man"
Cheryl Patterson had the same test done. A few months later, the results came back positive. Doug was in Arizona.
“It made me very angry,” she said. “All kinds of things are going through your mind. But in my heart, I knew he was there.”
Doug’s remains had been identified. But then Cheryl began to think about the remains she had been given from Future Genex. How could they be Doug’s ashes if Doug was 1,300 miles away in Arizona?
“To be giving people ashes that we’ve been spreading in Doug’s favorite places,” Cheryl said, “before we knew that those probably are not Doug’s ashes.
Cheryl doesn’t know whose ashes she was given, or if any part of them was actually Doug.
“He’s an evil man,” Cheryl said. “I think he’s evil.”
Walter Mitchell is charged with 29 counts of abandoning or concealing a dead body, as well as bomb charges in Scottsdale.
He’s pleaded not guilty to all the charges and his lawyer refused to comment.
As of this week, 12 News has learned there are still parts of three bodies that have not been identified through DNA.
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