As most families in New York were preparing for the winter holidays in December 2005, Reverend Susan Cooke Kittredge learned something horrific. The Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office informed her that her father's remains had been vandalized. Her father was Alistair Cooke, a British journalist who’d hosted "Masterpiece Theater" on PBS.
Cooke had died from lung cancer that had metastasized to his bone. Little did his family realize that at the funeral home where he was sent to be cremated, his death certificate was altered and his diseased arm, leg and pelvic bones were sold to a tissue-processing corporation.
A fictitious character had given consent for this and the business that received the parts had believed the remains were extracted from a man ten years younger who'd died from a heart attack.
The New York Daily News first reported the potential for a problem in October 2005, and an investigation was already underway. Apparently a dispute involving the Daniel George & Son Funeral Home in New York had uncovered shocking revelations.
Funeral director and freelance embalmer Joseph Nicelli had sold the building but had neglected to clean up his business affairs.The new owner contacted Detective Patricia O’Brien to report that Nicelli had allegedly cheated some customers out of their funeral deposits and they were demanding restitution.
O’Brien visited the funeral home to look around and spotted what appeared to be a hidden operating room, fitted out with surgical lights and a mechanical lift. She opened up a broader investigation.
In the funeral home’s previous records, investigators found that Nicelli had associations with several companies that processed human tissue for transplant. Graves were opened and corpses examined to see if any had been criminally violated. It wasn’t long before the Brooklyn DA’s office realized they might have an illegal body snatching ring right there in New York. A signifcant one.
Nicelli had partnered with Biomedical Tissue Services (BTS), a corporation headquartered in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and owned by Michael Mastromarino. The forty-four-year-old businessman turned out to be a failed oral surgeon whose addiction to Demerol had forced the forfeiture of his license. He and Nicelli had developed the tissue procurement business.
Paying $1,000 per body, they found funeral directors in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and even Canada willing to let them remove bones and tissue from “clients” before burial. Their business thrived.
Like the 19th century surgeons and medical students who counted on body snatchers to procure cadavers from fresh graves, tissue processing companies needed people willing to supply the goods. The assumption was that families gave consent and the transaction was legal and aboveboard. But where profit calls, some people will cut corners and fudge the facts.
In truth, no one was checking to see if families had actually given their consent for allowing their loved ones to be thus handled, or whether a corpse was accurately represented. In all but one case, the removal of parts from 1077 corpses was done without relatives being the wiser, and many of those parts were dangerous.
As many as 10,000 donor recipients in the U.S. and abroad could have received tissues that carried infectious diseases, such as AIDS and hepatitis C. Perhaps they now had cancer-ridden bone parts grafted to their own that could send the disease into their bodies. Thus, there was a chance that harm had been done to unsuspecting patients.
DA Charles Hynes questioned a number of people and alleged that the process worked as follows: Mastromarino would learn from one of his associates in the funeral trade that a body had come in. Nicelli would bring it to his funeral home with the surgical room, or his “cutters” would use a room at the other funeral parlor.
If the deceased was slated for embalming and viewing, they removed only the bones from the waist down, replacing the missing parts with plumber’s PCV pipes to fill out the clothing and prevent anyone from suspecting that something was gone. Sometimes, they just used socks.
If a body was going to be cremated, with no viewing, they were free to pick it clean, taking heart valves, fatty tissue, tendons, ligaments, veins, and skin.
Most of the signatures on the consent forms had been forged. In addition, it was alleged that death certificates were altered to make some bodies younger, fresher, and free of drugs or disease, avoiding automatic rejections.
Mastromarino, Nicelli, and two assistants were charged with 122 counts of stealing bodies, illegal dissection, enterprise corruption, grand larceny, and forgery, among other crimes. Supposedly, the “body-snatching ring” made as much as $4.7 million in the course of four years, from their network of thirty to forty different funeral homes.
Mastromarino pleaded guilty in 2008 to numerous charges of enterprise corruption, reckless endangerment and body stealing and was sentenced to 15 to 30 years in prison. He agreed to pay the DA’s office $4.6 million, to be distributed among the victims’ relatives.
This past Sunday, Mastromarino died. The cause, according to his attorney, was complications of metastatic liver cancer, which had gone into his bones and his brain. He was 49. No, he had not received a transplant of bones he'd sold, the way poetic justice might dictate, but this is a karmic irony for victims of his greed to savor, nonetheless.