Linchpin of stolen body parts probe to plead guilty, could bolster cadaver transplant lawsuits

Sunday, January 20, 2008

NEW YORK -- The man accused of scheming to plunder bodies for parts used in thousands of tissue transplants is poised to plead guilty, and authorities and victims' relatives say his testimony could roil the billion-dollar industry.

In an effort to escape a lengthy jail sentence in cases in Philadelphia and New York, Michael Mastromarino has agreed to talk to investigators about the companies that bought the stolen tissue, said his lawyer, Mario Gallucci.

"Let's just say that he is going to assist them and give any information he has about the processors and their role," Gallucci said.

The companies that processed the tissue already face hundreds of civil lawsuits. But they claim they never knew the body parts weren't legitimately obtained and insist the former oral surgeon's plea deal, expected to be announced Tuesday, doesn't change anything.

The scandal broke two years ago when Mastromarino, then owner of Biomedical Tissue Services, was accused of furtively hacking up corpses from funeral homes in the Northeast. The body parts were sent to the processors, fetching as much as $7,000 apiece.

Mastromarino, 44, was in a position to know exactly how the business operated and who knew what.

"Mastromarino can certainly tell us things that may lead us in directions we haven't been able to go before," said a law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the person wasn't authorized to speak publicly.

Mastromarino started BTS in 2001 and made plenty off the pilfered corpses. It wasn't a complicated business.

The bodies came from funeral homes in New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. BTS shipped the bone, skin and tendons to Regeneration Technologies Inc., LifeCell Corp. and Tutogen Medical Inc., all publicly traded companies, along with two not-for-profits, Lost Mountain Tissue Bank and the Blood and Tissue Center of Central Texas.

Court documents show Regeneration, which recently agreed to merge with Tutogen in an all-stock deal, shipped a total of 19,446 pieces of tissue that BTS provided.

Minneapolis-based health giant Medtronic Inc., which distributed some of the tissue it received from Regeneration, also has been sued but says the case is without merit.

The parts were used in disk replacements, knee operations, dental implants and a variety of other surgical procedures performed by unsuspecting doctors across the United States and in Canada. About 10,000 people received tissue supplied by BTS.

Among the bodies BTS looted was that of "Masterpiece Theatre" host Alistair Cooke, who died in 2004.

Medical records for Cooke show Regeneration received the arms and legs. Cooke's pelvis and other tissue were also removed, but it's not clear where those parts were sent. The records are riddled with errors.

His daughter, Susan Cooke Kittredge, said Regeneration never bothered to verify her father's medical records or whether in fact he had agreed to donate his arms and legs. Kittredge insists the companies had to know what Mastromarino was doing.

"If you look at it through an ethical lens, they committed the same crimes as Mastromarino," Kittredge said. "They lied. They committed fraud. They did harm by taking the parts. Clearly they did not check to see if the wishes of the family or of the deceased had been honored. They did harm and exhibited reprehensible greed. It was all about the money."

A spokeswoman for Rengeneration declined to comment and a message left with a Tutogen executive was not returned.

The processors, along with Medtronic, have said Mastromarino was a seedy operator who deceived them along with everyone else, and they had no idea that the body parts were illegally obtained.

"If he's going to plead guilty to these charges, I think that is a positive sign. He's admitting his wrongdoing, and he deceived everyone involved, from the donors and their families all the way to the recipients," said Bert Kelly, a spokesman for Medtronic, which had no direct dealings with Mastromarino.

If improperly screened and processed, cadaver tissues can cause lead to infections, including the AIDS virus. Despite the companies' assurances that their sterilization methods are safe, hundreds have sued them.

If Mastromarino -- who faces up to 54 years in prison if convicted of enterprise corruption, body stealing, opening graves, unlawful dissection and forgery -- implicates the companies, their financial exposure could be enormous.

But an attorney for one of the processors played down Mastromarino's cooperation.

"It does not change how we are going to defend these civil cases at all," said David Field, a lawyer for LifeCell.

Lawyer Kevin Dean, whose South Carolina firm Motley Rice is handling 592 lawsuits against the tissue processors and represents another 27 people in New York whose family members' bodies were carved up without permission, thinks Mastromarino has plenty to say.

"Everyone on our end ... believes it's very exciting information," he said. "It seems to suggest that everything that the plaintiffs have said all along is completely accurate. That the tissue processors are more involved than they want everyone to believe."

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