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Bill sets jail term for body parts thieves

May 17, 2006 | Body-parts snatchers would face up to 20 years in prison under a new bill introduced in the state Assembly by a Bergen Democrat who owns a funeral home.

The bill, A-3106, sponsored by Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Englewood) and Dr. Herb Conaway Jr. (D-Burlington County), makes the illegal harvesting of body parts a first-degree crime punishable by 10 to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $200,000.

The legislation was prompted by the uncovering of a massive body parts theft ring that authorities said was headed by Michael Mastromarino, a former dentist from Fort Lee. Mastromarino's firm, BioMedical Tissue Services, is accused of making millions of dollars by illegally harvesting tissue and bones from corpses.

"We want to make sure that families have peace of mind and that the utmost respect is shown for the remains of their loved ones," said Huttle, owner of Vainieri Funeral Home in North Bergen. "We also wanted to make sure that if this ever happened again, it would be a first-degree offense."

The bill also makes third-degree crimes of forging consent forms and other manipulation of donor paperwork, as well as the actual sale of a body part. Legitimate tissue recovery firms would still be able to charge for procuring the tissue.

Huttle said that in the wake of the BioMedical scandal, clients have shown trepidation about what might happen with their relatives' remains.

"There have been questions and concerns from families," she said.

Mastromarino, 42, and his partner, Joseph Nicelli, were indicted by a Brooklyn grand jury on Feb. 23 on charges of stealing bones and tissue from more than 1,000 corpses, including that of longtime "Masterpiece Theatre" host Alistair Cooke.

The pair and two accomplices made nearly $5 million from the scheme, authorities allege. They deny any wrongdoing and remain free on bail.

After unsealing the 122-count indictment, Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes said Nicelli obtained the corpses from up to 40 funeral homes throughout the tri-state area and upstate New York with which he held contracts for embalming services.

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