PRESCOTT, Ariz. — A man once described as a “veteran body broker” has been arrested after a hunter last month stumbled upon the heads and limbs of at least five people scattered in a central Arizona forest.
Walter Harold Mitchell, 59, of Scottsdale, is charged with 29 counts of abandonment or concealment of a dead body, according to Arizona court records. Following his Dec. 29 arrest in Scottsdale, Mitchell was booked into the Yavapai County Jail.
“This situation is unimaginable, and I am so sorry for the families whose loved ones were donated to research and treated in such a horrific fashion,” now-retired Yavapai County Sheriff Scott Mascher said in a statement.
Sheriff’s office officials said that a passerby reported possible human remains along a roadway just outside of Prescott on the afternoon of Dec. 26.
“Detectives, in conjunction with Yavapai County Medical Examiner investigators, confirmed they were human,” authorities said last month.
Those parts, two human limbs, led to a search that same day that uncovered another 19 arms and legs, Yavapai County officials said. Five more limbs were found the following day.
As the second day of searching continued, the sheriff’s office received a call from a hunter in the Camp Wood area a few miles away. The hunter reported finding two severed human heads.
“Deputies arrived and confirmed what he had seen, and a follow-up search revealed three more human heads,” a sheriff’s office statement said.
Investigators initially launched a murder investigation, believing they had a possible serial killer on their hands. Evidence recovered at both scenes, however, led them down another track.
“Yavapai County Medical Examiner personnel have been present at both sites and stated that evidence tends to show the remains are from a medical institution intended for use in the educational and research field,” the statement said.
Some of that evidence was in the form of puppy pads, which are used in hospital settings for patients who are incontinent. Gauze-like material was also found at the dump sites.
Mascher, who was days away from retirement, and his replacement, Sheriff-elect David Rhodes, expressed disgust in the first few days of the investigation.
“It is not much that could surprise me anymore, but this news makes me sick, especially for the families of those whose remains were found,” Mascher said. “I have every assurance the persons responsible will be caught.”
Rhodes described the situation as a “bizarre and grisly case that has more questions than answers at this time.”
Last month’s gruesome discovery was not the first in Arizona related to the body donation industry. Court documents last year detailed how FBI agents investigating a shuttered Phoenix facility in 2014 stumbled upon buckets of body parts piled on top of one another.
Former FBI special agent Mark Cwynar testified in a lawsuit against Biological Resource Center that he “personally observed various unsettling scenes” while a raid on the facility was underway, The Arizona Republic reported. Those scenes included a “cooler filled with male genitalia” and torsos with limbs and genitals removed, the documents say.
The agent said he saw a “bucket of heads, arms and legs,” piled on top of one another with no identification as to which parts belonged to which bodies. Cwynar also testified he saw a “large torso with the head removed and replaced with a smaller head, sewn together in a ‘Frankenstein’ manner,” the Republic reported.
During last month’s Yavapai County investigation, detectives spoke to the owners and staff of licensed facilities in Arizona that deal in cadavers donated for medical research. All were extremely cooperative, authorities said.
“They want the public to know that this case in no way represents the work they do to care for loved ones who have donated their bodies to important education and research,” sheriff’s office officials said.
Evidence found at the scene pointed to a Seattle-based cadaver management facility named Future GenX. Mitchell was the owner of the now-defunct business.
“Working with local police in the Seattle area, detectives obtained information that Mitchell left Seattle in 2020 with human remains belonging to five individuals,” authorities said Dec. 29. “Detectives traced Mitchell’s travels to the Prescott (and) Chino Valley communities, and then recently to Scottsdale, where he was contacted and arrested this morning.
“Mitchell’s motivation for his actions are unknown currently.”
Mascher, who retired Friday, thanked the community for being patient as the case was sorted out. He also expressed pride in the detectives who so quickly identified Mitchell as a suspect.
“At the onset, it was important to determine that this case did not involve a serial killer and (that) is why, working with Sheriff-elect Rhodes, I directed all available resources to the case,” Mascher said. “As I retire this Friday, I want to thank the community for their support, and I know the agency will continue to do great work.”
Rhodes called the disrespect shown those who had generously donated their bodies to science as “abhorrent and intolerable.”
“Today’s arrest is a big step in getting accountability and honor for those whose remains were so cavalierly treated,” the new sheriff said.