Michigan state court rejects request to block Detroit election certification results

By Tom Hals and Makini Brice

(Reuters) – A Michigan state court rejected on Friday a request by supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump to block the certification of votes and appoint an independent auditor in Detroit, which voted heavily in favor of Democratic President-elect Joe Biden.

The ruling is a setback for Trump and Republicans who have been trying to overturn Biden’s victory in the Nov. 3 election by preventing officials from certifying election results.

“It would be an unprecedented exercise of judicial activism for this Court to stop the certification process of the Wayne County Board of Canvassers,” wrote Timothy Kenny, chief judge of the Third Judicial Circuit Court of Michigan, referring to the county that includes Detroit.

The lawsuit alleged fraud and voting irregularities, which Wayne County has denied.

The judge rejected those allegations, writing: “Plaintiffs’ interpretation of events is incorrect and not credible.”

He noted that allegations, such as city workers encouraging voters to cast their ballot for Democrats, were not backed up by details, such as locations or times when such events allegedly took place.

The judge also said that one witness who had filed an affidavit had posted on Facebook before the election that he speculated that Democrats were using the pandemic as cover for election fraud, undermining his testimony and credibility.

On Wednesday, the Trump campaign filed a similar lawsuit in U.S. District Court in the Western District of Michigan, alleging harassment of Republican poll challengers and a requirement they adhere to six-foot distancing rules that was not equally enforced against Democratic poll challengers.

Michigan is due to certify its election results on Nov. 23.

The campaign and Republicans have also sued in Georgia, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin seeking to block the certification of election results.

Also on Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s decision before the election that a former Pennsylvania congressional candidate and four individual voters lacked standing to sue over the state’s decision to allow “no excuses” absentee ballots and to extend mail-ballot deadlines due to the coronavirus pandemic.

(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware and Makini Brice in Washington; Editing by Louise Heavens and Alistair Bell)

Chicagoans told to stay home, Detroit moves school online as COVID-19 cases surge

By Brendan O’Brien and Maria Caspani

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Chicago issued a stay-at-home advisory and Detroit stopped in-person schooling on Thursday to staunch the coronavirus outbreak as more than a dozen states reported a doubling of new COVID-19 cases in the last two weeks.

Officials in the Midwestern cities along with New York, California, Iowa and other states were re-imposing this week restrictions that had been eased in recent months. The moves were driven by surging infection rates and concern that the onset of winter, when people are more likely to gather indoors, will worsen the trends.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Thursday issued a 30-day advisory calling upon residents to stay at home and have no visitors, even during Thanksgiving festivities. The third- largest city in the United States could see 1,000 more COVID-19 deaths by the end of 2020 if residents do not change behaviors to stop the spread of the virus, Lightfoot said.

Lightfoot set a 10-person limit on gatherings, including indoor and outdoor events, and said travelers from out of the state needed to quarantine for 14 days or submit a negative coronavirus test.

“None of us can keep maintaining the status quo in the face of this very stark reality,” the mayor told reporters, noting the average number of cases have gone from 500 to 1,900 per day over the last month and the city’s positivity rate shot up to 15% from 5%.

Illinois has emerged as the pandemic’s new epicenter in the region as well as across the country. In the past two weeks, the state reported about 130,000 cases, the highest in the country and more than hard-hit Texas and California.

A Reuters tally showed coronavirus cases more than doubling in 13 states in the past two weeks.

In Michigan, the Detroit public school system – the state’s largest – said on Thursday it would suspend of in-person education until Jan. 11, with the infection rate in the city rising rapidly. The district will hold all classes online starting Monday.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Thursday that the country’s largest school system was preparing for a possible shutdown but closure might still be averted.

“We’re not there yet, and let’s pray we don’t get there,” de Blasio told reporters. De Blasio has said schools will close if the percentage of city residents testing positive, now at a seven-day average of 2.6%, surpasses 3%.

Total COVID-19 cases across the United States hit an all-time daily high for a second day in a row on Wednesday at 142,279 and crossed the 100,000 mark for an eighth consecutive day, Reuters data showed.

The number of people hospitalized with the virus surged to at least 64,939 by late Wednesday, the highest ever for a single day during the pandemic, increasing by more than 41% in the past two weeks. The death toll rose by 1,464 to a total of 241,809.

Vaccine developers have offered some good news this week, with Pfizer and BioNTech trumpeting successful early data from a large-scale clinical trial of a coronavirus vaccine.

Health experts are hopeful that a vaccine might become available in the coming months for the most vulnerable populations and for healthcare providers.

But with a more lengthy timeline for the general public, many are urging strict adherence to well-known virus mitigation measures like wearing a face covering, washing hands and maintaining a safe social distance.

“We hope that by the time you get into the second quarter, end of April, early May, May-June – somewhere around that time, the ordinary citizen should be able to get it,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, a top U.S. health official, told the ABC “Good Morning America” program on Thursday.

“What we need to do is what we’ve been talking about for some time now but really doubling down on it.”

(Reporting by Maria Caspani in New York and Anurag Maan in Bengaluru and Brendan O’Brien in Chicago, additional reporting by Peter Szekely in New York and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Editing by Howard Goller and Cynthia Osterman)

Trump supporters protest outside Arizona vote center

By Mimi Dwyer

PHOENIX (Reuters) – A crowd of Donald Trump supporters, some armed with rifles and handguns, gathered outside an election center in Arizona on Wednesday night after unsubstantiated rumors that votes for the Republican president were deliberately not being counted.

Chanting “Stop the steal!,” and “Count my vote,” the mostly unmasked protesters stood in front of the Maricopa County Elections Department in Phoenix, as Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden held a razor thin lead in the critical battleground state. Some news outlets have called Arizona for Biden, but Trump’s campaign says it is still in play.

A victory for Biden in Arizona would give the Democrat 11 electoral votes, a major boost in his bid to win the White House, while severely narrowing Trump’s path to re-election, in a state the Republican won in 2016.

On Election night Fox News and the Associated Press called Arizona for Biden, even though only just over 70% of the vote had been counted, a move that infuriated Trump and his aides.

Some of the roughly 200 protesters, who were faced by a line of armed county sheriffs, chanted “Shame on Fox!”. Some said they came out after a tweet from Mike Cernovich, a right-wing activist.

Chris Michael, 40, from Gilbert, Arizona, said he came to make sure all votes are counted. He said he wants assurances that the counting was done “ethically and legally.”

Rumors spread on Facebook Tuesday night that some Maricopa votes were not being counted because voters used Sharpie pens to mark their ballots. Local election officials insisted that was not true.

With the count still under way in several key states, Trump has accused the Democrats of trying to steal the election without evidence and filed lawsuits in several states related to vote-counting.

A similar scene played out on Wednesday afternoon in downtown Detroit, where city election officials blocked about 30 people, mostly Republicans, from entering a vote-counting hall amid unfounded claims that the vote count was fraudulent.

Trump has filed a lawsuit in Michigan to stop vote-counting that the secretary of state called “frivolous.”

The protests echoed the “Brooks Brother riot” during the 2000 recount in Florida that ultimately handed the presidency to Republican George W. Bush. A crowd of blazer-clad Republican protesters stormed a building where a hand recount was underway in a heavily Democratic district, forcing poll workers to stop counting ballots.

The protest is now viewed as a significant event in keeping Bush’s slender vote advantage in Florida intact. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately stopped the Florida recount, handing Bush the presidency and defeat to Democrat Al Gore.

(Reporting by Mimi Dwyer in Phoenix; writing by Tim Reid; Editing by Heather Timmons and Richard Pullin)

Government health experts warn U.S. cities of ‘trouble ahead’

By Doina Chiacu

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – White House health experts are warning of an uptick in the percentage of people testing positive for COVID-19 in U.S. cities including Boston, Chicago and Washington, urging local leaders to maintain health safety measures to avoid a surge.

“This is a predictor of trouble ahead,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on Thursday.

Fauci was asked on CNN about comments made by his White House coronavirus task force colleague, Dr. Deborah Birx, identifying new areas of concern in major cities, even as authorities see encouraging signs across the South.

Baltimore and Atlanta remain at a “very high level,” as well as Kansas City, Portland, Omaha and California’s Central Valley, Birx told state and local officials in a telephone call Wednesday. A recording of the call was obtained by the journalism nonprofit Center for Public Integrity.

White House data shows small increases in the percentage of positive COVID-10 tests in Chicago, Boston and Detroit and those places need to “get on top of it”, Birx said.

Even in cities and states where most people are doing things right, Fauci said, a segment of people not wearing masks or following social distancing remains vulnerable to infection and can keep the virus smoldering in U.S. communities.

“Unless everybody pulls together, and gets the level way down over baseline, we’re going to continue to see these kind of increases that Dr. Birx was talking about in several of those cities,” Fauci said.

White House coronavirus experts have in recent days sent regular warnings to cities and states not to relax anti-coronavirus measures too much before the virus is under sufficient control.

On average, 1,000 people are dying each day nationwide from COVID-19. The U.S. death toll is now over 157,000, with 4.8 million known cases.

President Donald Trump, in contrast, has played down the staying power of the virus, saying on Wednesday “it will go away like things go away” as he urged U.S. schools to reopen on time for face-to-face lessons.

Trump also said children are “almost immune” from COVID-19, prompting Facebook Inc on Wednesday to take down a post by the Republican president containing a Fox News video clip in which he made the statement. Facebook said it violated its rules against sharing misinformation about the virus.

Chicago’s mayor said on Wednesday that school would be online-only in September, after the teachers’ union and many parents in the city objected to a plan to allow students the option of attending class twice a week in pods of 15.

Chicago is the third-largest school district in the United States behind New York and Los Angeles, with 350,000 students.

Los Angeles has already announced that students will be kept home, while New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he expects to have children attend classes part of the time.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

Trump to send federal forces to more ‘Democrat’ cities

By Steve Holland and Lisa Lambert

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Monday said he would send law enforcement to more U.S. cities, as a federal crackdown on anti-racism protests in Oregon with unmarked cars and unidentified forces angered people across the country.

Trump, a Republican, cited New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore and Oakland, California, as places to send federal agents, noting the cities’ mayors were “liberal Democrats.” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot frequently blasts Trump on Twitter.

“We’re sending law enforcement,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “We can’t let this happen to the cities.”

State and local leaders in Oregon, as well as members of Congress, have called for Trump to remove Department of Homeland Security secret police forces from Portland, Oregon, after videos showed unidentified federal personnel rounding up people and whisking them away in black minivans.

“Not only do I believe he is breaking the law, but he is also endangering the lives of Portlanders,” the city’s mayor, Ted Wheeler, tweeted, having previously called the federal presence “political theater” in an election year.

Trump, trailing in opinion polls behind Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, in June declared himself “president of law and order” and threatened to send the U.S. military into cities after sometimes violent protests and looting in the aftermath of African American ‘s death in police custody in Minneapolis.

Federal agents last week began cracking down on Portland protests against police brutality and systemic racism, using tear gas to defend federal buildings and taking some activists into custody without explanation.

“They grab a lot of people and jail the leaders. These are anarchists,” Trump said of federal agents sent to the historically liberal city to quell often unruly protests.

Despite a national outcry over the tactics, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials on Monday said they would not back down and would not apologize.

The state of Oregon and the American Civil Liberties Union have sued the Trump administration for unlawfully detaining Oregon residents, and some Republicans spoke out against its tactics on Monday.

“There is no place for federal troops or unidentified federal agents rounding people up at will,” tweeted U.S. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.

The Chicago Tribune reported that Homeland Security was making plans to deploy around 150 agents in the city this week where police defending a statue clashed with protesters on Friday.

The DHS did not immediately respond to a request for additional comment.

(Reporting by Steve Holland, Doina Chiacu and Lisa Lambert in Washington, additional reporting by Maria Caspani in New York, Deborah Bloom in Portland; Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

Hundreds protest Michigan stay-at-home order

By Michael Martina and Seth Herald

DETROIT/LANSING, Mich. (Reuters) – Hundreds gathered to protest Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order on Thursday in Lansing, the third but smallest major demonstration at the state’s Capitol since businesses were shuttered in March due to the coronavirus.

Whitmer recently extended Michigan’s stay-at-home order – one of the strictest in the United States – until at least May 28 to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and the respiratory disease it causes, COVID-19.

The protest was organized by Michigan United for Liberty, which says it is a nonprofit with nearly 8,000 members that views the order as unconstitutional.

About 150 protesters gathered in light rain around 9 a.m. near the steps of the Capitol building, but the crowd grew to several hundred by mid-morning, some carrying signs in support of President Donald Trump. A handful had firearms, including long guns.

“Open your business now. Open the restaurants. Open the bars. Open the movie theaters,” one protester, who did not announce his name, told the crowd. “Michigan, wake up America.”

Michigan State Police quickly responded to a small scuffle but said there were no injuries and the site was secure. Speakers had packed up the audio system before 11 a.m., as rain intensified.

The Capitol building was closed because the legislature had been adjourned.

Debate over how and when to ease restrictions on commerce and social life has grown increasingly politicized in the United States, with Trump and his supporters agitating to loosen social-distancing measures more swiftly than medical experts deem prudent.

Democratic governors of states hardest hit by the outbreak have taken a more cautious stance, abiding by public health officials – and guidelines from the White House itself – warning that vastly expanded coronavirus testing and other safeguards be put in place first.

Hundreds of protesters, some armed, gathered at the same site in Lansing on April 30 to protest against Whitmer’s request to the state legislature to extend emergency powers to combat COVID-19.

That rally saw large groups of protesters enter the Capitol building and demand to be let onto the House floor, which is prohibited. Some protesters with guns — which are allowed in the statehouse — went to the Senate gallery.

The Republican-led state legislature has declined to outlaw weapons inside the Capitol building, something Democratic governor Whitmer lamented in an interview on CNN on Wednesday.

“No one should have to go to work and feel intimidated,” she said. “Making the Capitol a gun-free zone is important in making people feel they can do their job safely.”

Authorities had told protesters to expect a heavy police presence at Thursday’s protest, and Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel warned in advance that she was prepared to prosecute potential violations, including brandishing of weapons and trespassing into the legislative chambers.

“I vehemently support the First Amendment right to protest government actions at the Capitol or elsewhere around the state; however any such activity must be done in a manner that is safe and lawful,” she wrote in a tweet on Wednesday.

Michigan had the fourth highest death toll from COVID-19 in the United States as of Thursday, at 4,714 dead among its 48,391 confirmed cases.

(Reporting by Michael Martina in Detroit and Seth Herald in Lansing; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

Amazon warehouse workers protest near Detroit

(Reuters) – Amazon.com Inc on Wednesday said a handful of workers staged a demonstration at one of its warehouses near Detroit, reflecting the ongoing concerns among its staff about contracting the coronavirus on the job.

Less than 15 of Amazon’s more than 4,000 employees at its Romulus, Michigan fulfillment center participated, following confirmation that a worker based there had tested positive for the virus, the company said.

Those protesting have demanded Amazon shut down the facility for additional cleaning and cover all medical bills for associates and their family members who contracted COVID-19 from the site, according to a Facebook live stream of the demonstration.

(Reporting By Jeffrey Dastin in San Francisco; Editing by Chris Reese)

Coronavirus hits hundreds of U.S. police amid protective gear shortages

By Michelle Conlin, Linda So, Brad Heath and Grant Smith

New York (Reuters) – When nine police officers showed up to make an arrest near Melrose Avenue in the Bronx last Wednesday, none wore a mask or gloves to protect them from coronavirus.

Similar scenes play out all over the city daily: officers making arrests, walking their beats and responding to 911 calls without protective gear, according to interviews with nearly two dozen New York City officers and scenes witnessed by Reuters.

As of Sunday, 818 members of the nation’s biggest police force had tested positive for coronavirus, including 730 uniformed officers and 88 civilian staffers, according to NYPD. The department said about 5,000 of its 55,000 total employees are on sick leave.

Major city departments nationwide, such as Houston and Detroit, are being forced to sideline officers as infections rise in the ranks, according to a Reuters survey of the nation’s 20 largest U.S. police agencies conducted between March 25 and March 29. The police agencies have confirmed 1,012 cases of COVID-19 among officers or civilian staff, according to the survey and a Reuters review of the departments’ public statements.

The pandemic has depleted police forces already strained by staffing shortages. Many departments have told officers to limit their interactions with the public and maintain social distancing. Some agencies are re-assigning detectives and administrative staff to help respond to emergencies as more patrol officers get sick, which requires pulling the investigators away from major cases.

“There’s a lot of triaging going on,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a think tank that advises police on policy issues. “Many departments are having to re-order priorities and the calls they respond to. Police are having to reshuffle how they use their resources.”

NYPD may face the biggest challenge because of the severity of the city’s outbreak: Of the 2,477 deaths reported nationwide as of Monday, 678 came in New York City.

The officers interviewed by Reuters said shortages of gear leave them vulnerable and that they fear spreading the virus to their families and the public.

“We show up first, to everything, and we are completely unprotected,” said one officer in the 33rd precinct.

All of the New York officers interviewed by Reuters spoke on condition of anonymity. They say the department forbids them from speaking to reporters.

Sergeant Jessica McRorie, an NYPD spokesperson, said that the department was responding to an “unprecedented” crisis and has issued detailed guidance to officers on how to protect themselves. Since the outbreak began, she said, the NYPD has distributed 204,000 pairs of gloves, 75,000 N-95 masks, 340,000 surgical masks and distributed 125,000 alcohol wipes and hand sanitizer to employees.

NYPD did not answer questions from Reuters about whether that amount of gear – much of it disposable – was sufficient to protect its 36,000 officers and 19,000 civilian employees. The department also did not comment on the accounts of officers who said they had little or no protective gear, or whether it had experienced difficulty in purchasing enough supplies.

Masks and other protective or sanitary supplies have often been scarce since the pandemic sent worldwide demand surging, prompting safety concerns from a wide range of workers who interact daily with the public, from first responders to doctors to delivery drivers.

One uniformed NYPD officer and two civilian employees have died after contracting COVID-19. The officer – 23-year veteran detective Cedric Dixon from the 32nd precinct in Harlem – died on Saturday.

On March 13, the New York City police union filed a complaint with state health and safety regulators over the department’s failure to provide protective equipment and adequate cleaning and sanitizing supplies. The union emphasized the threat to officers’ families.

“It’s important for our leaders to remember that we aren’t the only ones at risk,” said Patrick J. Lynch, president of the city’s police union, in a statement. “Our husbands and wives and daughters and sons didn’t pick this job, but they share our sacrifice.”

Reuters was not able to determine whether any family members of NYPD officers had been infected.

SIDELINED OFFICERS, DELAYED ARRESTS

Departments nationwide are struggling to protect their officers – and to operate without those who are getting sick. The Reuters survey asked police agencies how many of their employees tested positive for coronavirus, how many were quarantined, and how the outbreak has impacted their operations.

The Nassau County Police Department – just outside New York City on Long Island – reported the second highest number of cases with 68 employees testing positive. In Detroit, a fifth of the city’s 2,200-member force has been quarantined after at least 39 officers tested positive – including the police chief. Two department staffers, a commanding officer and a 911 dispatcher, have died after contracting the virus.

The departments in San Antonio and Honolulu were the only ones that reported no confirmed infections on their forces.

In New Orleans and Seattle – which are not among the top 20 departments but are hotspots of infection – another seven police employees tested positive, the departments told Reuters.

The outbreak is forcing law enforcement agencies nationwide to implement sweeping changes to their policing strategies.

The Philadelphia Police Department, the nation’s fourth-largest law enforcement agency with 6,540 officers, has begun delaying arrests for certain non-violent offenders. The change means individuals will be temporarily detained only to confirm identity and complete required paperwork instead of being processed at a detective division. The person will then be arrested at a later date.

The 2,440-officer Nassau County department had quarantined 163 officers as of Saturday. Its dispatchers are screening all 911 calls to check if anyone needing help is exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19. Responding officers and medics are ordered to wear an N95 mask, gloves, eye protection and gowns, the department said.

Some departments are limiting access to their buildings. Intercoms have been installed at the entrance doors of all seven precincts of the Suffolk County police department – also in Long Island, with nearly 2,500 officers – to screen visitors for symptoms before allowing entry.

In Dallas, where 34 employees from the police department have been quarantined and two have tested positive, officers are no longer physically responding to calls for certain minor crimes. People are instead being asked to file a report online.

Complaints over shortages of protective gear are growing in major police departments. The Dallas Police Department, for instance, has issued N95 masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer to its more than 3,000 officers. But the police union president says it’s not enough. Many officers, he said, are using the same mask for days even though N95 masks are not meant to be reused.

“Those masks are in such dire need,” said Michael Mata, president of the Dallas Police Association. “We’re in a very bad spot.”

Mata says he’s been told the police department has ordered more protective gear. A Dallas police spokesman said the new supplies would be handed out starting Monday and confirmed that some patrol divisions had run low on gear.

In New York City, resentment over a lack of protective gear runs deep, according to interviews with current and former officers. In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, cops working on the smoldering rubble of the World Trade Center were told the air was safe to breathe. Years later, many developed fatal 9/11-related cancers and illnesses.

“This is even worse than 9/11,” said one NYPD officer. “We are bringing this home to our families.”

‘BUSINESS AS USUAL’ FOR CRIMINALS

While local stay-home orders and business closures have paralyzed the economy, they do not appear to have significantly slowed crime. Reuters reviewed police dispatch records in a handful of large cities, which showed far fewer traffic stops but similar rates of calls reporting more serious crimes.

In Baltimore, the Monday after Maryland’s governor issued an order shutting non-essential businesses, city police reported making just 71 traffic stops, compared to a daily average of more than 350 a day in the months before the virus hit, dispatch records showed.

But dispatches to more serious incidents were not diminished. The number of calls reporting a family disturbance, such as domestic fights, for instance, increased slightly after the governor imposed the first business restrictions on March 16. The number of dispatches involving assaults was largely unchanged.

Baltimore’s police force did not respond to requests for comment.

ShotSpotter – a company that tracks gunshots for many large police departments using networks of microphones – said there had been no perceptible slowdown in gunfire in New York, Washington, Chicago, San Francisco or Miami.

“It’s business as usual, sadly, with respect to gun violence,” said ShotSpotter president Ralph Clark.

(Reporting by Michelle Conlin, Linda So, Brad Heath and Grant Smith; Editing by Jason Szep and Brian Thevenot)

Storm to clobber U.S. Midwest with snow, wind and frigid temps

A jogger runs through the rain past the reflecting pool at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, U.S., February 7, 2018.

By Brendan O’Brien

MILWAUKEE (Reuters) – A storm is expected to clobber Chicago, Detroit and Milwaukee with heavy snow, gusty winds and freezing temperatures that will slow travel for millions of commuters on Thursday evening and Friday.

The storm system that stretches from western Montana across parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois and east into southern Michigan will drop as much 12 inches (30 cm) of snow and produce 35 miles per hour (56 kph) winds, the National Weather Service said in several advisories.

“Periods of snow will cause primarily travel difficulties. Be prepared for snow covered roads and limited visibilities,” the service said in an advisory for southern Wisconsin.

Wind chill temperatures were expected to drop below 0 Fahrenheit (-18 C) in many areas across the region on Thursday night and into Friday morning.

United Airlines said on Twitter the storm was expected to impact operations this week and that travel waivers were in effect for areas affected by the snow.

Winter weather across the United States over the last several days has killed several people in accidents in the Midwest since Monday, including six in Iowa, two in Missouri and one in Montana, local media in those states reported.

(Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

Federal agents found fetuses in body broker’s warehouse

Arthur Rathburn is pictured at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, U.S. in November 1988.

By John Shiffman and Brian Grow

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Federal agents discovered four preserved fetuses in the Detroit warehouse of a man who sold human body parts, confidential photographs reviewed by Reuters show.

The fetuses were found during a December 2013 raid of businessman Arthur Rathburn’s warehouse. The fetuses, which appear to have been in their second trimester, were submerged in a liquid that included human brain tissue.

Rathburn, a former body broker, is accused of defrauding customers by sending them diseased body parts. He has pleaded not guilty and his trial is set for January.

How Rathburn acquired the fetuses and what he intended to do with them is unclear. Rathburn’s lawyers did not respond to requests for comment, and neither the indictment nor other documents made public in his case mention the fetuses.

“This needs to be reviewed,” said U.S. Representative Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee who recently chaired a special U.S. House committee on the use of fetal tissue.

Blackburn recoiled when a Reuters reporter showed her some of the photographs, taken by government officials involved in the raid.

In four of the photos, a crime scene investigator in a hazmat suit uses forceps to lift a different fetus from the brownish liquid. In three other photos, a marker that includes a government evidence identification number lies beside a fetus.

“The actions depicted in these photos are an insult to human dignity,” said U.S. Representative Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. A Republican from Virginia, Goodlatte said that if individuals “violate federal laws and traffic in body parts of unborn children for monetary gain,” they should be “held accountable.”

Blackburn said the discoveries in Rathburn’s warehouse raise questions about the practices of body brokers across America. Such brokers take cadavers donated to science, dismember them and sell them for parts, typically for use in medical research and education. The multimillion-dollar industry has been built largely on the poor, who donate their bodies in return for a free cremation of leftover body parts.

The buying and selling of cadavers and other body parts — with the exception of organs used in transplants — is legal and virtually unregulated in America. But trading in fetal tissue violates U.S. law.

In most states, including Michigan, public health authorities are not required to regularly inspect body broker facilities. As a result, it’s impossible to know whether body brokers who deal in adult donors are acquiring and profiting from fetuses.

Blackburn’s call for action came in response to a Reuters series that exposed abuses in the human body trade and what Blackburn called “lax oversight” and “lax enforcement” of the industry.

Photos from inside Rathburn’s warehouse offered a stark example of government failures to police the industry. They include images of rotting human heads, some floating face up in a plastic cooler. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, which has been investigating Rathburn and other body brokers, declined to comment.

Blackburn said she found other Reuters stories about the body trade disturbing.

As part of the news agency’s examination of the industry, for example, a Reuters reporter was able to purchase two human heads and a cervical spine from Restore Life USA, a broker based in Blackburn’s home state of Tennessee. The deals were struck after just a few emails, at a cost of $900 plus shipping.

“It is sickening” how easily Restore Life sold the parts to Reuters, Blackburn said.

Told of Blackburn’s concerns, Restore Life owner James Byrd said his company has “invited her to tour our facility and to review the policy and procedures we have in place.”

(Shiffman reported from Washington. Grow reported from Atlanta. Edited by Blake Morrison.)