Seconds before the anesthesia kicked in at the start of a 2008 surgery in a Minnesota hospital, Elahn Quick said he was no longer certain he wanted to sell his kidney. By then, it was too late.
“Before I finished the conversation, I was gone,” Quick testified Wednesday in federal court in Trenton, N.J.
In the first criminal organ-trafficking case in the United States, Quick took the witness stand at the sentencing of Levy Izhak Rosenbaum, a Brooklyn man who pleaded guilty to brokering black-market sales of human kidneys to three Americans.
After hearing Quick’s account of how Rosenbaum paid him $25,000 for a kidney, U.S. District Judge Anne Thompson sentenced Rosenbaum to 21⁄2 years in prison.
“It’s a kind of trading in human misery,” Thompson said of the black-market kidney trade. Rosenbaum “charged a fee” for kidneys while using “a complicated web of transactions” to finance his trade, she said. “He corrupted himself.”
The sentencing marks the final chapter in a first-of-its- kind case that culminated with Rosenbaum’s arrest in July 2009. He was one of 44 people charged as part of an FBI crackdown on money laundering and political corruption in New Jersey. A cooperating witness in that probe brought authorities to Rosenbaum, 61, and his unrelated kidney- selling scheme.
Rosenbaum, an Israeli immigrant, pleaded guilty last year to violating a 1984 U.S. law banning the sale of human organs. He admitted that he charged sick Americans as much as $160,000 for a kidney. Prosecutors said he’d been selling kidneys since 1999.
Defense lawyers urged Thompson to sentence Rosenbaum to probation and community service. They and a former Rosenbaum client who bought a kidney told the judge that he was “an angel” who helped save the lives of people close to death from kidney disease. They said he earned little from his decade- long kidney scheme.
“Saving a life should not end up in a jail sentence,” Richard Finkel, an attorney for Rosenbaum, told the judge.
Prosecutors called for a stiff prison term.
“Rosenbaum is a profiteer who saw an opportunity in the black-market of kidney sales,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark McCarren said in court. Rosenbaum probably earned “hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars” in profit while “exploiting” the poor whose desperate need for cash forced them to sell their kidneys, he said.
Prosecutors summoned Quick to testify to rebut defense claims that Rosenbaum had charitable motives. A locksmith who was born in Israel and had U.S. citizenship, Quick, 31, said he responded to an advertisement for donors that ran in a Hebrew- language New York newspaper. The ad directed him to call a phone number in Israel.
“I wanted to do something meaningful in my life,” Quick testified. “And the financial compensation” - $25,000 - was an inducement as well, he said.
Quick was directed to meet a Brooklyn man named “Ido” who he said was Rosenbaum’s assistant. Ido asked Quick about his blood type and whether he was certain he wanted to go through with the surgery. Quick said he was never warned of the risks.
Ido later brought Quick to Rosenbaum, who told Quick to tell hospital administrators that he had befriended the recipient’s son-in-law and had decided to donate a kidney after learning of their plight. Rosenbaum also introduced Quick to the kidney buyer.
The surgery took place at “University Hospital” in Minneapolis, Quick testified. In a later interview, he said it was at the hospital affiliated with the University of Minnesota. Prosecutors don’t claim the hospital knew of the black-market sale. Ryan Davenport, a spokesman for the University of Minnesota Medical Center, didn’t have an immediate comment on Quick’s testimony.
On the morning of the operation, “I was pretty emotional about the whole ordeal, crying,” Quick said. Before the anesthesia took effect, Quick said he asked Ido, “Was it too late to turn around?” Next he knew, he was regaining consciousness after surgery, Quick said.
Becky Cohen, the daughter of the man who bought Quick’s kidney, testified that the family paid Rosenbaum $150,000 for the organ. The surgery itself was financed by family insurance.
Cohen, called to testify by prosecutors, said Rosenbaum was a “hero” who saved her father’s life. He’d been waiting on a kidney transplant list for five years and was undergoing dialysis before buying the organ, she said.
“My father is doing very good today,” she testified. “He’s a different person.”
Prosecutors also presented testimony from a doctor and administrator from Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia. Rosenbaum organized about a dozen kidney transplants there from 1999 to 2002. The hospital didn’t know the surgeries involved black-market kidneys, they said. Another witness said he had a transplant there in 2001 after his family paid Rosenbaum for a kidney.
Rosenbaum faced as many as 20 years in prison on counts of conspiracy and organ trafficking. He agreed to forfeit $420,000 and may be deported to Israel after serving his sentence.
Thompson cited what she said were “incredible stories” of Rosenbaum’s charity that were detailed in numerous letters submitted to her by his supporters, many of whom filled the courtroom.
The judge said the “woeful inadequacy” of the existing transplant system, which relies on altruistic kidney donors, didn’t excuse Rosenbaum’s crimes. As many as 80,000 people are awaiting transplants and five to seven people die daily, Radi Zaki, an Albert Einstein doctor, told the judge.
“This is a difficult case,” Thompson said.