Sat, Feb 25, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Four charged in US with theft of bones and organs

GRUESOME In a case compared to something out of a horror movie, four men in New York have been charged with illegally taking parts from corpses

AFP , NEW YORK

In this photo released by the Brooklyn, NY District Attorneys Office, an X-ray of the lower part of a deceased person shows that PVC plumbing pipes were inserted where the bones once were. Four men were charged on Thursday with secretly carving up corpses and selling the parts for use in transplants across the US.

PHOTO: AP

A dentist and three other men were charged in New York on Thursday with illegally harvesting bones and organs from more than 1,000 corpses.

The four defendants allegedly made millions of dollars selling unscreened body tissue taken from the bodies of people who never consented to be donors, including that of veteran BBC broadcaster Alistair Cooke.

"The amount of callousness involved here is incalculable," said Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes as he detailed how the men allegedly replaced the bones of their victims with PVC piping so that their theft would not be noticed at a funeral.

According to a 122-count indictment, the team forged death certificates and donor consent forms to create the appearance that the tissue was harvested legally.

Though transplant guidelines set age limits and health requirements for donors, the defendants falsified the records so that, in the case of Cooke for example, the stolen parts were listed as coming from a healthy 85-year-old who died of heart failure.

Cooke was 95 when he died in New York in March 2004 from lung cancer.

At the same time, the accused would regularly toss gloves, aprons, and other evidence of their criminal handiwork into the bodies before sewing them back up, prosecutors said.

"What happened here ... is like something out of a cheap horror movie," Hynes said.

"But for the thousands of relatives of the deceased whose body parts were used for profit, and the recipients of the suspect parts, this was no bad movie. This was for real," he added.

Among those named in the indictment was Michael Mastromarino, a former dentist who ran a company in New Jersey that sold human tissue for medical implants.

Also charged were a Brooklyn embalmer Joseph Nicelli and two other men who worked for Mastromarino.

All four pleaded not guilty to charges that included enterprise corruption, body stealing and opening graves, as well as unlawful dissection.

Over a five-year period, the defendants allegedly harvested bones and organs from 1,077 corpses and then sold them on to transplant companies for use in surgical procedures around the world.

On the open market, one body can bring in as much as US$250,000 for harvesting and transplant companies, Hynes said.

Because the body parts were not properly screened, prosecutors said there was a serious risk of infection for transplant recipients.

The investigation into the scam began when the new owner of the Brooklyn funeral home previously owned by Nicelli complained that he had absconded with funds for a pre-paid funeral.

A detective who visited the home found "a virtual operating room" equipped as if for major surgery, rather than the usual preparations for the deceased.

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