INDIANAPOLIS - The details sound like the plot of a bad horror movie: Desperate for cash, a young man breaks into a warehouse to steal the brains of dead mental patients, and the body parts are later sold on eBay.
This story line, however, is real.
Authorities say David Charles, a 21-year-old Indianapolis resident, is accused of breaking into the Indiana Medical History Museum multiple times last year and stealing jars of human brain tissue and other preserved material. A tipster who paid hundreds of dollars on the online auction site helped bring the organ entrepreneurism to an end.
The museum is the site of the former Central State Hospital, which served patients with psychiatric and mental disorders from 1848 to 1994. Indianapolis police had investigated several break-ins at the museum's storage facility before a California phone call led police to Charles.
A San Diego man who had bought six jars of human brain tissue off eBay for $600, plus $70 shipping, called the museum after noticing labels on the containers and suspecting some kind of skulduggery, according to court documents.
Detectives with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department used that tip to trace the transactions, eventually speaking to the eBay seller who provided the brain tissue to the San Diego man. That seller had obtained the brain matter from Charles, police said.
Police set up a sting Dec. 16. The eBay middleman set up a meeting at a Dairy Queen parking lot with Charles, who the day before stole 60 jars of human tissue from the museum, according to authorities and court documents.
Once the parking lot deal went down, authorities said, a bust was made. One person with Charles reached for a handgun and was tackled by officers, court documents said. His name and the names of others involved in the case were redacted in the documents.
Charles faces charges of theft, marijuana possession and paraphernalia possession, according to court documents. Investigators also are looking into the possibility of additional charges, said A.J. Deer, a spokesman for the Marion County prosecutor's office.
Whether others are facing charges is unclear.
The museum's executive director expressed dismay that anyone would steal the museum's artifacts. The organ tissues come from about 2,000 patients whose remains were autopsied from about the 1890s through the 1940s.
"It's horrid anytime a museum collection is robbed," Mary Ellen Hennessey Nottage said. "A museum's mission is to hold these materials as cultural and scientific objects in the public interest. To have that disturbed - to have that broken - is extraordinarily disturbing to those of us in the museum field."
Nottage, who is grateful that much of the stolen material has been returned, said she spoke to the San Diego man who paid $670 on eBay for human brain tissue.
"He just said he liked to collect odd things," she said.
By Bill McCleery
The Indianapolis Star