Born during the Depression, Nicholas A. Pichowicz became a successful businessman, owning companies in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. He served in the National Guard, was a part-time police officer, and served as the deputy sheriff for Rockingham County.
He loved flying, woodworking, panning for gold, and sharing stories with his family, his obituary said. He was known for making the “best homemade spaghetti sauce in the world.”
When he died in the fall of 2019, his body was willed to Harvard Medical School, to be used for education and research. Instead, parts of his body were stolen in what federal prosecutors this week described as a broad conspiracy to sell human remains on a grisly illicit market.
On Wednesday, when Pichowicz’s daughter learned about a former medical school employee’s alleged role in the trafficking scheme, she quickly contacted Harvard. She was told her father was “a victim,” confirming her worst fears.
“It’s just unthinkable. There’s no words,” said Paula Peltonovich, of Newton, N.H. “We were just disgusted. Sick, like we were going to throw up.”
Peltonovich said her mother, Joan Pichowicz, died in March at 86 and had also willed her remains to the medical school. Both of her parents worked in law enforcement and were dedicated to “helping people,” she said.
“This is what they chose to do years ago,” Peltonovich said. “They gave back to science.”
Jack Porter of Newton said he received a letter from Harvard Thursday stating that the remains of his wife, Raya, “may have been impacted.”
In the letter, Dr. George Q. Daley, dean of the faculty of medicine, called the allegations “reprehensible” and offered apologies “for the pain and uncertainty caused by this troubling news.”
A gynecologist, Raya Porter died at age 57 in 2017 of colon cancer. Her cremated remains were returned to him in February 2019, he said.
Since receiving the letter, Porter said, his emotions have run the gamut. “I’m extremely upset,” he said in an interview. “First there was shock, and now it’s turning into a little bit of anger at Harvard. This kind of craziness is beyond belief.”
Prosecutors alleged that the former manager of the medical school morgue, Cedric Lodge, 55, spent years diverting organs and cadaver parts that had been donated and were supposed to be cremated, sometimes taking the remains to his home in Goffstown, N.H., before selling them to people in other states.
In all, six people have been charged with trafficking stolen human remains, which included bones, skulls, skin, dissected faces and heads, and internal organs including brains and lungs.
“Some crimes defy understanding,” Gerard M. Karam, US attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, said in a statement Wednesday. “The theft and trafficking of human remains strikes at the very essence of what makes us human.”
In a joint e-mail statement, the dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Harvard University and the dean for Medical Education at Harvard Medical School described the allegations as an “abhorrent” betrayal.
Lodge was fired May 6. His responsibilities included “preparing for and intaking anatomical donors’ bodies, coordinating embalming, overseeing the storage and movement of cadavers to and from teaching labs, and, when studies were complete, preparing remains to be transported to and from the external crematorium and, when appropriate, for burial,” according to Harvard Medical School.
The sprawling trafficking operation shed light on a dark corner of criminal activity, researchers said.
“There is no limit to the prurient interests of the criminal mind,” said Nora M. Cronin,an adjunct lecturer at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Having worked in this field for a long time, nothing surprises me.”
Criminals won’t shy away from unsavory schemes if they think there’s a payoff coming, Cronin said.
“When criminals see an opportunity to make a profit they will take it, no matter how exploitative it might be,” she said. “To me it’s not surprising based on the types of exploitation I’ve seen,” including the trafficking of infants and toddlers.
People can readily find human remains for sale on the Internet, specialists said, but the market is probably extremely limited.
“I can almost guarantee you that this is a very niche market with a very small group of buyers with some fetish,” said Sheldon Zhang, chair of the School of Criminology and Justice Studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. “It’s definitely not a common [form of] illicit contraband.”
He said trafficking of rare animal parts is far more common.
“This is very unique,” Zhang added. “Honestly I do not know, and I’m also not aware, of anyone in the [criminology] field who studies the trafficking of human remains.”
The alleged scheme harkens back to the mid-19th century, when states began passing “anatomy acts” laying out the process for the legal buying and selling of medical human remains, said Samuel J. Redman, a history professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst and the author of “Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums.”
“Where exactly these remains came from has long been an uncomfortable question with murky answers,” Redman said. Sources in the mid-19th century included “morgues and prisons and alms houses, as well as the continued looting and grave robbing of Native American remains.”
Private collectors were also willing customers, he said.
“How many of these are in private collections? We have no way of knowing that,” Redman said.
Cronin said people donating their remains should make sure the organization they’re giving them to is reputable.
“One would think that Harvard Medical School” would have adequate safeguards, Cronin said. “Bottom line, if something doesn’t feel right, it’s usually not. If there’s a suspicion, you’re entitled to investigate that suspicion.”
Dr. Aaron Schwartz, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, said the alleged thefts were a severe breach of trust.
“Without public trust, medical institutions can’t achieve their social mission,” Schwartz, a Harvard Medical School graduate, posted on Twitter.
It is not clear how many people’s remains were stolen. Peltonovich said her family doesn’t know the status of her mother’s remains. But if Harvard has them, the family wants them back, she said.
“We want her returned, so we can bury her,” Peltonovich said. “We don’t even want them to cremate her.”
Tonya Alanez of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Travis Andersen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.