Four Indicted in Case of Tissue Theft
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In New York City, four men have been indicted for stealing body parts from a Brooklyn funeral home and selling them for transplant. Prosecutors allege that the men took tissue samples from hundreds of dead bodies, including from the body of the late PBS host, Alistair Cooke. NPR's Robert Smith reports.
ROBERT SMITH reporting:
Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hines stood surrounded by pictures and X-rays of the corpses his office had exhumed. They showed that leg bones had been removed and replaced with PVC piping.
Mr. CHARLES HINES (District Attorney, Brooklyn, New York): Picture a leg of lamb at a butcher shop and have it cut open, see the bone removed, and have a pipe stuck into it. And then picture that as your mother, you know, your father or a child being brought to a funeral home, to get a sense of the outrage.
SMITH: Prosecutors alleged that the owner of a biomedical firm, Michael Mastromarino and a mortician Joseph Nicelli made millions of dollars by taking and selling those tissue samples without permission from the families. The men had allegedly been operating for years, with bodies sent to Brooklyn from around the Northeast, and were only discovered by accident.
The new owner of a funeral home in Brooklyn found some financial irregularities and went to the police. Officer Patricia O'Brien visited the home and discovered a secret room, according to police chief Raymond Kelly.
Mr. RAYMOND KELLY (Police Chief): Detective O'Brien saw a room equipped more for major surgery than for the usual preparations for the deceased.
SMITH: They then discovered receipts from tissue companies. But upon following up, found that of the thousand corpses that had been processed, only one family had actually given permission. Brooklyn DA Charles Hines says that the bodies were looted.
Mr. HINES: The tissues included skin, bone, ligaments and just about any other part of the body that was not an organ. These removed parts of the remains were then sold throughout the country for use in medical procedures, which included dental implants, hip replacements, surgery to repair other injured joints, as well as cardiac surgery.
SMITH: Hines says even more disturbing is that the tissue was then passed on with forged information.
Mr. HINES: No medical precautions were taken to ensure that these tissue transplants were free from disease or defect.
SMITH: Hines alleges that the tissue was made to look as if it came from younger and healthier people.
Mr. HINES: For example, the well respected host of Masterpiece Theatre, Alistair Cooke, had his tissue removed, and Mastromarino and Nicelli listed his age at 85 and the cause of death as heart attack. In fact, Mr. Cooke was 95 years of age, and the cause of death was lung cancer.
SMITH: The FDA has already issued a recall of the suspect tissue and warned hospitals that patients might have been exposed to disease, although they added that the risk of infection was minimal. Michael Mastromarino who sold the tissue released a statement through his lawyer denying any wrongdoing. He said that he wasn't the one responsible for obtaining releases from the families.
The whole investigation has been particularly hard on family members of the deceased. Anthony Dumane's(ph) father died in 2003 and was embalmed in the Brooklyn funeral home run by Joseph Nicelli. When the body was exhumed recently, Dumane found out his father's bones had been replaced by PVC tubing. He was shocked.
Mr. ANTHONY DUMANE (New York): Especially, I'm in the construction field and everyday I have to look at PVC piping, and I've got to deal with this every single day, and it's a shame. He didn't deserve that. Nobody does.
SMITH: Prosecutors say they are still investigating whether other people in the funeral business were involved and did not rule out more arrests.
Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.
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