PHILADELPHIA – Three men who conspired to plunder corpses and sell the sometimes diseased body parts were sentenced to prison Wednesday for what victims said was a gruesome, greedy scheme that violated basic principles of trust and human decency.
Among the bodies plundered in the scheme was that of "Masterpiece Theatre" host Alistair Cooke of Britain.
In New Jersey, meanwhile, a federal judge ruled against some of the patients who sued after receiving some of the body parts, saying they had failed to establish grounds to sue.
The mastermind of the scheme, Michael Mastromarino, was sentenced to 25 to 58 years in prison. Brothers Louis and Gerald Garzone, who provided bodies from a pair of funeral homes and a crematorium they ran in Philadelphia, will serve eight to 20 years.
"They betrayed us and they abused, in the most despicable manner, our family members," said David P. Blatt, whose father's body was among those harvested.
Mastromarino previously was sentenced to 18 to 54 years for running the scam in New York. His two sentences will run concurrently.
The scandal dates to February 2006, when Mastromarino — then owner of Fort Lee, New Jersey-based Biomedical Tissue Services — and others were accused of cutting up corpses from funeral homes in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
The parts were sold and used in about 10,000 surgical procedures performed by unsuspecting doctors in the U.S. and Canada.
Mastromarino paid the Garzones for at least 244 corpses that were carved up without families' permission and without medical tests, prosecutors said. Skin, bones, tendons and other parts — some of them diseased — were then sold around the country for dental implants, knee and hip replacements and other procedures.
The three defendants, who had pleaded guilty to charges including abusing corpses and theft, apologized in court.
"Words cannot express how sorry I am," Mastromarino told the court in a soft, wavering voice. He called his crimes "nothing less than disgusting and embarrassing," and then broke down and cried, burying his face in his hands.
About 75 witnesses testified at the sentencing hearing, including William Carter of Chevy Chase, Maryland, who had entrusted his mother's body to the Garzones.
"It's hard for me to remember my mother now," Carter said. "They've sort of inserted a horror movie in the middle of all of these memories I have."
The Garzones had about 40 character witnesses, many of whom said the brothers made a mistake.
Litigation arising from BTS' criminal enterprise was consolidated and assigned to U.S. District Court in Newark, New Jersey. There are about 353 federal cases under consideration there, according to the court, plus additional cases pending in state courts.
In a ruling published Wednesday, U.S. District Judge William J. Martini agreed with defense lawyers' claims that unprocessed bone tissue and bone paste stored at room temperature for 30 days or more is not capable of transmitting diseases such as HIV, syphilis or cancer.
Martini said plaintiffs who received bone tissue or bone paste transplants and have tested negative for those and other diseases more than six months after their surgery have failed to establish grounds for suing on those claims.
"This is going to eliminate the vast majority of these cases. There are very few that fit the criteria that the judge has established," said David W. Field, an attorney for LifeCell, a Branchburg-based company that provides products for soft tissue repair.
Kevin Dean, an attorney representing some plaintiffs, said he was reviewing Martini's ruling. "We will continue to pursue the interest of all our clients to the full extent allowed under the law," he said.
Plaintiffs include the donors' relatives and recipients of the processed tissue supplied by Biomedical Tissue Services.
Defendants include Biomedical Tissue Services; the funeral homes that provided the company access to the corpses; companies that processed tissue recovered from the cadavers into various medical products; companies that distributed the products; and hospitals that performed the transplants.
The companies have said that they never knew the body parts were illegally obtained, and that there is no evidence the transplanted tissue made anyone ill.