Four Named in New York 'Body-Snatcher' Crimes

Four men face indictment in New York for conspiring to steal human tissue from funeral homes and sell it for use in medical products. New York Daily News reporter William Sherman fills Madeleine Brand in on the details.

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From NPR News, this is DAY TO DAY. We have an update now on a grizzly story we brought you late last year. Prosecutors in Brooklyn say a New Jersey biomedical firm conspired to steal human bone and skin from dead bodies. The tissue is then sold to make medical products, including dental implants and spinal disc replacements. The late British broadcaster, Alistair Cook, was allegedly among the harvested bodies. I'm joined by William Sherman. He's a reporter for the New York Daily News, and he's been reporting on this story from the beginning, and first of all, William, how many people have been indicted, and what are they charged with?

Mr. WILLIAM SHERMAN (Reporter, New York Times): Four people have been indicted. The principals of the company, Biomedical Tissue Services of Fort Lee, and two other men, who also assisted in carving up the bodies.

BRAND: And what do prosecutors allege happened?

Mr. SHERMAN: That these four men, among others, harvested bodies at funeral homes, more than a thousand bodies throughout the Metropolitan area, Pennsylvania, upstate New York, Canada, and New Jersey, without relatives' consent. They also allege that consent forms from relatives were forged by the men and that the men allegedly lied about the medical condition and the cause of death of the deceased and ordered that the tissue could be sold.

I mean, in Alistair Cook's case, for example, he died of lung cancer that spread to his bones, which is an automatic rule-out of the tissue business, and he was 95. They said in documents that he died in his 80s, and he died of a heart attack.

BRAND: Now, if we said that this body tissue would end up in things like dental implants. Is this a legal profession?

Mr. SHERMAN: Yes, it is. It's entirely legitimate when practiced according to federal, state, and local regulations. You know, the technological breakthroughs have helped untold thousands of people from, you know, a man or a woman in their early 20s, who tears an anterior cruciate ligament and gets one from a cadaver, who some older person, who needs, you know, a new heart valve and gets that from a cadaver, so it's immensely important technology.

BRAND: But the illegal part here is what?

Mr. SHERMAN: Well, the illegal part is carving up bodies without a relative's consent, and two, lying about, in this case, allegedly lying about what the person died of and what their medical condition was when they died. For example, there was another case of a, I think it was a 28-year-old woman, who died of intravenous drug use, which is also an automatic rule-out, and they said she died of a heart attack.

BRAND: So where do they get these bodies?

Mr. SHERMAN: They pay funeral home directors a thousand dollars a corpse, and dozens of funeral homes were involved in this in numerous states.

BRAND: Doesn't the funeral homes. Have they been indicted as well?

Mr. SHERMAN: No, but I expect as the investigation continues that that will be the next shoe to drop, or one of the next shoes to drop.

BRAND: So this is really a national story. These body parts ended up all over the country?

Mr. SHERMAN: The body parts ended up not only in just about every state, including Alaska, but the five provinces of Canada, England, Ireland, and countries in Europe as well.

BRAND: William Sherman reporting for the New York Daily News. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. SHERMAN: Well, thank you very much.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: And DAY TO DAY returns in a moment.

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