PHILADELPHIA – Three funeral directors sold hundreds of bodies to a former oral surgeon who allegedly collected the bones, tissue and skin from the corpses to be used in transplants, a grand jury charged Thursday after a 16-month investigation.
The 244 bodies fetched about $1,000 each, the grand jury found, with the body parts being transplanted in unsuspecting medical patients worldwide.
Michael Mastromarino, who operated the now-defunct Biomedical Tissue Services of Fort Lee, N.J., ran the scheme with help from a team of "cutters" who stole the body parts, authorities said. Mastromarino is already facing charges in New York for allegedly plundering 1,077 bodies, including those from Philadelphia.
"No penalty is too harsh for these guys, for the just unbelievably craven nature of what they did," Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham said at a news conference.
Funeral directors Louis Garzone, 65, of Philadelphia, Gerald Garzone, 47, of North Wales, and James McCafferty, 37, of Philadelphia, were arrested Thursday on thousands of counts, ranging from running a corrupt organization to forgery and theft of body parts.
Indicted on similar counts were Brooklyn residents Mastromarino, who lost his oral surgery license amid unrelated drug charges, and Lee Cruceta, a former nurse who allegedly ran the cutting crew. Mastromarino plans to surrender Tuesday in Philadelphia and will fight the charges, his lawyer said.
"He was victimized by the funeral directors. The funeral directors were in charge of getting consent. All he was supposed to do was come and harvest the tissue and send the samples down to the processors," defense lawyer Mario Gallucci said Thursday.
While the mostly poor families thought their loved ones were being cremated quickly, the bodies were often left unrefrigerated for days, sometimes in alleys beside the funeral home, until a cutter arrived, authorities said.
"One of the cutters said it was like the back of a butcher shop, it was so dirty," Abraham said.
The funeral directors forged death certificates that said the donors had died of heart attacks or blunt-force trauma but were otherwise healthy, prosecutors said. In one such case, the donor was HIV-positive and suffered from hepatitis C and cancer. One woman who believes she contracted hepatitis from a tainted body part is pursuing a civil suit, Abraham said.
The defendants typically made up names for the donors and forged family consent forms, the indictment said. So far, authorities have learned the true identities of only 48 of the 244 bodies, Abraham said.
The group also lowered the donors' ages and changed their dates of death to make it appear the body parts were more fresh, authorities said.
The company sold the parts to treat burns, replace broken bones and provide for other medical needs, the 111-page indictment said. The black-market sales occurred from at least February 2004 through September 2005, prosecutors said.
The three Philadelphia suspects were taken into custody and it was not immediately clear if they had attorneys. A lawyer for Cruceta, who lives in Monroe, N.Y., said he believes his client is innocent.
"I've yet to be shown a single shred of evidence that he knew what was going on," lawyer George Vomvolakis said.
Mastromarino has been fighting the New York charges. Seven funeral directors there have pleaded guilty, including one whose funeral home allegedly removed parts from the body of the late "Masterpiece Theatre" host Alistair Cooke.