PHILADELPHIA – A nurse admitted Wednesday he cut body parts from 244 corpses and helped forge paperwork so the parts, some of them diseased, could be used in unsuspecting patients.
Authorities say nurse Lee Cruceta was the lead cutter in a group that trafficked in more than 1,000 stolen body parts for the lucrative transplant market.
He pleaded guilty to conspiracy, taking part in a corrupt organization, abuse of a corpse and 244 counts each of theft and forgery. Cruceta, 35, also has pleaded guilty to related charges in New York and negotiated pleas to serve concurrent sentences of 6 1/2 to 20 years.
He is expected to testify against the other defendants, and won't be formally sentenced until those cases are resolved.
Several funeral directors have pleaded guilty in New York, and the accused ringleader Michael Mastromarino, 44, is being held in the case. Three funeral directors in Philadelphia have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial.
Assistant Philadelphia District Attorney Bruce Sagel told a judge that Mastromarino also is expected to plead guilty. The timing of his plea was uncertain.
His lawyer, Mario Gallucci, earlier told The Associated Press that Mastromarino plans to tell prosecutors about the companies that bought the stolen specimens.
Mastromarino, a former oral surgeon, paid funeral directors $1,000 per corpse, then sold the parts to tissue banks, Sagel said. The body parts fetched up to $10,000 apiece, though the tissue banks resold them to hospitals for many times that amount, he said.
Prosecutors believe Mastromarino, employing several teams of cutters, took in $6 million to $12 million since 2001.
"I think the concern is Lee Cruceta has been placed, in some ways, on an even footing with Mr. Mastromarino, who has millions of dollars," defense lawyer Mary Maran said.
Cruceta, speaking after the hearing, said he was already earning more than $100,000 a year working two jobs when he signed on with Mastromarino, thinking his Biomedical Tissue Services was a legitimate company. Asked when he realized things were amiss, he declined to comment.
"We were a normal family. We had a normal life," said his wife, Theresa Cruceta, standing with their three young children. "We lost everything."
She had lost her hospital administration job in New York City in the economic downturn that followed the 2001 terrorist attacks, she said. Cruceta previously worked as a surgical nurse manager and at a tissue bank, but said he thought he could ultimately earn more working for Mastromarino.
The body parts were used in disk replacements, knee operations, dental implants and other surgical procedures performed by unsuspecting doctors across the United States and in Canada. About 10,000 people received tissue supplied by Biomedical Tissue Services.
Among the bodies looted was that of "Masterpiece Theatre" host Alistair Cooke, who died in 2004. Cooke's daughter and relatives of the other deceased people say they never authorized any donations.
A grand jury in Philadelphia found that the body-parts ring forged death certificates to hide diseases such as cancer and AIDS and lower the ages of the deceased to make the stolen specimens more desirable.
A flood of civil lawsuits are expected on behalf of the transplant recipients.