The parents of a deceased Coatesville Marine sergeant have filed a lawsuit claiming the U.S. government failed to protect their late son's body — and may soon amend the action to contend that officials in the heavily indebted country of Greece may have harvested his heart for sale in Europe's notorious underground organ market.
Craig and Beverly LaLoup on Friday filed a civil suit in Philadelphia federal court against the United States, the Department of Defense and the Navy. They claim the Pentagon tried to conceal an illegal autopsy the Greek government performed last year on their son, Sgt. Brian LaLoup, then 21, during which his heart was allegedly removed. The LaLoups' attorney Aaron Freiwald said the couple is now looking at leveling additional civil charges against Greece, a decision he expects to be made within the next several days.
Sgt. LaLoup committed suicide Aug. 12, 2012 after attending an off-duty party at the Marine Security Guard Residence of the U.S. Embassy in Athens, where he had been stationed for nearly three months.
"There was an autopsy done in the Greek hospital," Freiwald said. "Why they took the heart as part of that autopsy, we don't know yet. When you remove an organ as a part of an autopsy, you put it back. That didn't happen."
As the investigation into the autopsy has commenced, more questions have been raised than answers, according to Freiwald.
"I say that because there is a record of there being an autopsy done in the Greek hospital, but we also know there are reports that have been in the media about a black market for organs in Europe," he said. "We don't have absolute confirmation that the heart of this Marine was, in fact, part of the autopsy. We just don't know. And he died of a gunshot wound to the head, so is removing the heart from the corpse standard autopsy practice in Greece in that situation? There's a big question about that."
An unnamed employee of the Greek Consulate in San Francisco on Friday told The Courthouse News Service that in Greece, nothing can be removed from deceased bodies without relatives' consent. "If someone did this, he should be punished," the employee reportedly said.
The suit states Sgt. LaLoup during the party was "observed drinking beer and shots of hard liquor" and told a fellow service member he was having graphic thoughts of committing suicide. Court documents claim the service member, as required by Marine Corps protocol, reported LaLoup's behavior to a superior.
But rather than obtain supervision and medical treatment for Sgt. LaLoup, the superior "instead decided to take him out for more drinking," the suit states. According to the complaint, Sgt. LaLoup was later seen "sprinting" toward the area of the embassy that contained unsecured gun lockers. "Despite the fact that Sgt. LaLoup was visibly intoxicated, obviously distraught, and out of breath from sprinting, he was given access by the Marine on duty through the hard line at the entry to the chancery," the suit continues.
From there, Sgt. LaLoup went directly into the embassy response room, where he obtained the service weapon he used to commit suicide, according to military reports cited by the suit. Though security policies dictate the response room door be secured, it was allegedly wedged open.
The suit further claims Sgt. LaLoup was, contrary to embassy and Marine Corps policy, left unattended at the Evangelismos General Hospital in Athens when he first arrived, as well as nearly two hours later when he passed away from his injury, though it was "readily known or foreseeable" that his body would be "mutilated, disfigured and illegally autopsied if left behind unguarded."
"Whether it's on the battlefield or any other field, our military wants to make sure that we don't leave anyone behind," Freiwald said. "We see that in the movies. We see that in the stories of real world experiences, too - that we have a regard for life and limb that isn't always shared by others. And we want to respect the wounded and the fallen and honor them and make sure that the families, to the best of the military's ability, can do the same. And so leaving a soldier - leaving a Marine - unattended in a civilian hospital is directly against military policy."
What exactly happened to Sgt. LaLoup's body as it laid in that hospital is still unclear.
"What followed after he died in that hospital was a diplomatic tussle over custody of the body, with the Greeks insisting that they had the right to do an autopsy and the Americans insisting that they didn't," Freiwald said. "And so for several weeks these parents are here in Pennsylvania, not knowing what happened, not understanding anything that they could make sense of as to what happened to their son and can't even seem to get a straight answer as to where he is or what is going to happen to his body."
Still, once the dispute was resolved and Sgt. LaLoup's body was flown home, the suit claims not only did the U.S. government and military fail to take the necessary steps to compel Greece to return the sergeant's heart, as well, but that officials instead "worked to conceal the fact that Sgt. LaLoup's heart had been stolen."
A U.S. government-supervised autopsy performed Aug. 22, 2012 at the Dover Air Force Base allegedly confirmed Sgt. LaLoup's heart had been removed. But, according to the complaint, no one told his parents of the missing organ, even after they buried their son a week later. In the alleged words of one sergeant quoted in the suit, the discovery was kept secret "because that is not something you tell a grieving mother."
The complaint claims it wasn't until Sept. 17, 2012, when a sergeant came to the LaLoups' home to have them fill out paperwork, that he "by accident informed the plaintiffs that Sgt. LaLoup's body was missing his heart" and that his corpse had been embalmed and autopsied in Greece.
"So that information was kept from the family," Freiwald said. "That's a problem. That's something that shouldn't happen. And then they now have to experience a wholly different kind of grief and sadness about what happened to the physical body of their son and how was their son mutilated or how was he treated physically after he died. Now they've got all these new questions."
The U.S. Department of Defense did not immediately return calls or emails seeking comment Monday.
But answers still didn't arrive. In fact, things only became stranger for the LaLoups.
"Some number of months later comes word from Greece - very excitedly - that they had located their son's heart," Freiwald said. "And because of all the strange things that had been going on up until that time and all the many questions that had not been answered, they questioned, 'how did they know that this was their son's heart?'"
The U.S. military agreed to subject the organ to DNA testing. Results returned earlier this year revealed the heart did not belong to Sgt. LaLoup.
"We don't know where the heart came from," Freiwald said. "We know that the U.S. authorities told Mr. and Mrs. LaLoup that they had Brian's heart. It turns out after doing DNA testing that the heart is not Brian's heart. So the U.S. authorities, when Brian's body arrived from Greece, they misrepresented that it was his entire remains. They failed to share with the family that his heart was missing. And then, later, they claimed they had located Brian's heart, so the misrepresentation took place at a number of different places and times."
The lawsuit claims the U.S. government's purported mishandling of Sgt. LaLoup's body and alleged attempts to deliberately mislead his loved ones about the state of his remains caused family members to fall into "a state of severe emotional distress," including depression, sleeplessness and anxiety attacks. Freiwald is hoping the legal action may finally bring the LaLoups some much-needed closure.
"Now that we have the lawsuit, we have ability to take depositions and to subpoena records," he said. "Before you file a lawsuit, you can ask questions but the people you're asking questions of don't have to answer, if they don't want to. Now, through the court process, we have the ability to hopefully get answers to a lot of these questions."
The LaLoups are seeking compensatory and punitive damages of an unspecified amount in excess of $75,000. "I think the larger point here is that these parents are looking to have an honest accounting of what happened to their son and they are looking for the responsible parties to be held accountable," Freiwald said. "They're really looking to honor the memory of their son.