Stealing Alistair Cook's Bones

The New York Daily News reports that a body-snatching ring, operating illegally to sell tissue for use in transplants, managed to obtain and distribute the bones of famed British broadcaster Alistair Cook after his death in 2004. Bill Sherman of the Daily News fills Madeleine Brand in on a bizarre story.

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For years, one of New York's most beloved residents was the expatriate British broadcaster Alistair Cooke. He's perhaps best-known to Americans as the host of PBS' "Masterpiece Theatre."

(Soundbite of "Masterpiece Theatre")

Mr. ALISTAIR COOKE (Host): Good evening, I'm Alistair Cooke. We open tonight a new television theater, which in the...

BRAND: Cooke was also acclaimed for his "Letter From America," a weekly BBC broadcast Cooke delivered for nearly 60 years.

Cooke died last year at the age of 95, but there's a ghoulish story in today's New York Daily News involving Cooke's remains and a ring of body snatchers. I'm joined from New York by Bill Sherman of the Daily News.

And, Bill Sherman, body snatchers? What's going on?

Mr. BILL SHERMAN (New York Daily News): An ex-dentist and an embalmer, along with several other people, were paying funeral home directors a thousand dollars per corpse. They would then surgically remove the bones, skin, cardiac valves and other tissue from these corpses and sell them to tissue-processing companies for eventual transplant into people, as in skin for burn victims, cardiac valves for people with heart problems, bone that was used for dental implants and orthopedic procedures, bone replacement procedures and so forth. And just the day before yesterday, I found out the body snatchers, led by a man, as I said, Michael Mastromarino, had stolen Alistair Cooke's bones.

BRAND: So he obviously had to have the cooperation of the funeral home director.

Mr. SHERMAN: Yes, he did. The family did not give permission, and as it is alleged these body snatchers did in hundreds of other cases. he lied about Cooke's age in the records that he produced. He said he was 85 when, in fact, Cooke died at the age of 95. And Mastromarino produced documents saying that Cooke died of a heart attack, while, in fact, he died of lung cancer that spread throughout his bones. And the federal Food and Drug Administration regulations and other state and local protocols say that you cannot use bones diseased of cancer for any transplant procedures. So Mastromarino had to allegedly, as I say, change the records so that he could sell the bones. And he sold them to two different tissue-processing companies, and both those companies have declined to comment.

BRAND: So it's anyone's guess where that tissue is now?

Mr. SHERMAN: The bone is in--harvested bone is probably in, you know, 15 or 20 different people in--according to the procedure.

BRAND: That is--excuse m--pardon me, but that is disgusting. There's no other word for it but to think of that as...

Mr. SHERMAN: It is disgusting, but I mean, at this point, having written about this for a couple of months, I'm rather used to it. But each time I sit down, I get disgusted again.

BRAND: Bill Sherman is a reporter for the New York Daily News. Thanks a lot.

Mr. SHERMAN: Well, thank you.

BRAND: Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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