Plea Deal? Defendant Absent from Brooklyn Body Parts Hearing

A defendant in a plot to plunder corpses and sell body parts for transplants apparently has pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate against the reputed mastermind.

Prosecutors have refused to discuss newspaper reports of a plea deal with Lee Cruceta, a so-called cutter who worked for a former physician accused of making millions of dollars by selling the stolen tissue to biomedical companies.

But the glaring absence of Cruceta, 35, and his lawyer on Tuesday at a pretrial hearing proves the reports were true, said Mario Gallucci, attorney for former physician Michael Mastromarino.

Gallucci said outside court that he believes the deal was secretly completed within the last month. Cruceta's attorney did not immediately respond to a telephone message seeking comment Tuesday.

Seven funeral directors have pleaded guilty to undisclosed charges in the case and agreed to cooperate. Lawyers have said one was the director of a funeral home that took parts from the body of the late "Masterpiece Theatre" host Alistair Cooke.

Cruceta had been expected to go on trial with Mastromarino and a second cutter. All had previously pleaded not guilty to charges of enterprise corruption, body stealing and other crimes.

Mastromarino was ordered to return to court on Friday. No trial date has been set.

A fourth defendant, ex-embalmer Joseph Nicelli, recently was granted a separate trial after his attorney convinced a judge his client needed more time to recover from a head injury suffered in a fall off a roof.

The four men were charged last year with removing skin, bone and other parts from hundreds of bodies at funeral homes in New York without family permission. A related case involving nearly 250 bodies has been brought in Philadelphia.