NYC authorities investigate possible theft of body parts

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Officials fear some of the parts were diseased and could infect patients who received them.

NEW YORK -- Michael Bruno's life had been uncomplicated: He was an immigrant who worked hard, spoke his mind and succumbed to kidney cancer two years ago at 75.

"Typical Italian cab driver," recalled his son, Vito. "He had an opinion about everything."

It's only after death that his story became ghoulish.

Authorities believe his body and those of hundreds of other people -- including famed British broadcaster Alistair Cooke -- were secretly carved up in the back rooms of several funeral parlors citywide to remove human bone, skin and tendons without required permission from their families. Authorities allege the body parts were then sold for a profit.

Worse, health officials fear some of the stolen body parts were diseased, and could infect patients who received them in skin grafts, dental implants or other orthopedic procedures -- a risk concealed by paperwork doctored with forged signatures and false information.

"It's not just disrespectful to my father," said Vito Bruno, who has sued one of the funeral homes. "It's an absolutely hideous crime against other people."

In the Cooke case, authorities confirmed this week that investigators contacted the late broadcaster's family after finding paperwork indicating his bones had been removed and sold by a Fort Lee, N.J., tissue bank, Biomedical Tissue Services, before he was cremated. Cooke, best known as the host of PBS's "Masterpiece Theatre," died from cancer last year at 95 in Manhattan.

The family insists it never signed off on the procedure, and that someone had falsified documents by changing his cause of death to heart attack, and by lowering his age to 85. Harvesting bones from cancer patients violates rules by the Food and Drug Administration.

A daughter, Susan Cooke Kittredge, said the family was "shocked and saddened" by the news.

"That people in need would have received his body parts, considering his age and the fact he was ill when he died, is appalling to the family, as is that his remains were violated," she said.

The probe -- first reported by the Daily News in October -- has uncovered other gruesome images. In one instance, the corpse of a Queens grandmother that investigators exhumed last month had nearly all the bones removed below the waist and replaced with PVC pipes.

A state grand jury in Brooklyn has been hearing evidence against at least a half-dozen funeral homes in the borough and against Biomedical Tissue Services. Authorities allege that they illegally profited by conspiring to sell stolen body parts, and say indictments could be handed up early next year.

The brewing scandal's reach extends far beyond the New York City area.

In the fall, the FDA ordered a recall of products produced by tissue processors in New Jersey, Florida, Georgia and Texas, all customers of Biomedical Tissue Services. Since the announcement, authorities in Canada have determined that about 300 potentially tainted products were imported there, and used for dental surgery on at least two patients.

Health officials advised physicians that patients who were implanted with the tissue should be tested for HIV, hepatitis and other infectious diseases. The officials said they believed the health hazards were minimal, and no infections have been reported since the FDA warning.

But past cases have demonstrated dire risks.

In 2001, a Minnesota man died after a knee surgery from an infection caused by a bacterium traced to cartilage from an infected donor. A year later, health officials in Oregon announced that several patients were infected with hepatitis C after receiving donated organs and tissue from a single corpse.

Authorities say the Brooklyn case stems from a deal struck between a dentist who started Biomedical Tissue Services, Michael Mastromarino, 42, of Fort Lee, and Joseph Nicelli, 49, an embalmer and funeral parlor operator from Staten Island.

Investigators suspect Nicelli helped secure access to tissue and bones from funeral directors for $500 to $1,000 a body. Mastromarino allegedly would remove the body parts, then ship them to processors paying thousands of dollars per order.

Attorneys for Nicelli and Mastromarino did not respond to numerous phone messages left by The Associated Press, but have previously denied that their clients did anything wrong. A phone number listed for Biomedical Tissue Services was disconnected.

The Brooklyn case demonstrates the potential pitfalls of allowing funeral homes and tissue banks to do business without stricter oversight, said Annie Cheney, author of the upcoming book "Body Brokers: Inside America's Underground Trade in Human Remains."

"The fact that these people were supposedly able to get away with this for so long is shocking," she said.

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