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Body Brokers: The Local Investigation

May 18, 2006 |

For the first time, authorities confirmed that Rochester-area funeral homes are under investigation for their role in an alleged stolen body parts scandal.

They talked to 13WHAM News about the status of the investigation and allowed us to watch video of a raid on a local tissue bank office.

A New Jersey tissue bank operator and three of his associates have already been charged. Investigators say Michael Mastromarino, owner of New jersey-based Biomedical Tissue Services, trafficked stolen body parts from Brooklyn to Brighton.

Earlier this year, prosecutors estimated there are hundreds of victims. All of the victims are deceased, investigators say, and all are missing body parts. A dramatic moment during a news conference came when authorities showed an x-ray of a body that had plastic pipes inserted in the place of bones.

“It looks like the kitchen sink. It was just a horrible thing to look at and realize this person I never met was sitting there with bolts and pipes.  It was just shocking,” said Josh Hanshaft, a Brooklyn prosecutor.

On a snowy February day, Brooklyn investigators raided Biomedical’s Rochester office. At the time, Mastromarino knew he was under investigation, so authorities expected the office to be cleaned out.

They found coolers, used to store body parts and tissues. Investigators already had allegedly forged consent forms taken from other locations. The forms had Mastromarino’s signature.

In an exclusive interview with ABC News, Mastromarino said his signature only verifies that funeral directors had received family permission.
“Consent that we spoke to the funeral directors. We spoke to them and were allowed to move ahead with our procedures," he said.

Kings County Assistant District Attorney Josh Hanshaft said the forms indicate Mastromarino himself conducted the interviews with the families.

Hanshaft took 13WHAM News into what he calls his “war room” at his Brooklyn office. Charts on the wall link the similarities among thousands of documents.

Rochester has its own chart. Hanshaft confirmed for the first time that area funeral home directors are under investigation.

Eight Rochester-area funeral homes contracted with Biomedical Tissue Services to be part of the donation program. Hanshaft does not believe all were involved in criminal conduct. But each was paid $1,000 per body.

“There are certainly funeral home directors who are complicit and were aware of what was going on here, and partaking and profiting,” Hanshaft said.

Authorities estimate that, in Rochester, 50 to 60 bodies were robbed of tissues and other parts. Brooklyn prosecutors anticipate more arrests. They are working with the Monroe County District Attorney.

Who is Watching?
Journalist Annie Cheney has spent more than three years researching the billion-dollar body parts industry.

“(Family members are) grieving.  They expect the funeral director to take care of their loved one's body.  They expect their funeral director to respect their wishes,” said Cheney, author of “Body Broker.”

Cheney says a body is worth more in parts, than intact. Bones, tissues, and even whole spines, can generate $100,000 per body.

Cheney says no one is watching the industry closely.

“They don't address whether it’s appropriate to have a funeral home that also has a tissue business on site and the funeral home is involved with both businesses.  Because anyone could see there is a conflict of interest," she said.

New York does more than most states to regulate the industry. The health department must certify tissue banks, people who remove tissues, and the room where the procedure occurs. The room must also be sterile and separate from other funeral home activities.

But there are gaps in the regulations when it comes to cremation. All of the local stolen body parts cases involve cremation.

Lottie Kennedy died in Rochester home of heart failure. Her grieving daughters turned to a funeral home director recommended by a friend. Daughter Cyndia Kennedy McInnis said the Serenity Hills director collected the body himself.

“There was something going on and I saw it. I couldn't put my finger on it. But I mentioned it to my sister right there at my mom's house when he came to pick up the body,” said McInnis, who did not question the funeral home director.

McInnis learned in a phone call from investigators that her mother’s skin, tissues, and tendons were taken without permission.

"This total numbness came over me,” McInnis said.

McInnis is now suing the funeral home. She is represented by attorney Van White, who believes Lottie Kennedy was chosen for tissue harvesting because her body was set to be cremated.

“Michael Mastromarino figured out that investigators were onto him, so he was very selective about those bodies that he harvested. I believe that he required the bodies to be cremated so there wouldn't be any evidence of that activity,” White said.

Once a body leaves a hospital morgue, the state does little to regulate who has access to the body. Crematories are required to provide a receipt that a body was received, but the state does not track what happens to a body before it reaches its final destination.

"We've seen cases where they've gone to crematories and taken body parts out of a freezer and gone off with them. There's no way to tell if a head is missing or an arm is missing or a leg is missing,’" said Cheney

Every Part Has a Price
On the open market, every human part has a price. Though it’s illegal to sell a dead body, brokers can charge to recover the cost of removing storing, and transporting. Some brokers are cashing in.

"If you look at the people who were buying from Dr. Mastromarino, they even said in their stock statements to the SEC, 'Our raw materials may be hard to come by and that may impact your stock price.'  That would indicate to me they're really on the lookout for body parts and they're willing to cut corners to get them," Cheney said.

"There's no consent, there's no consent,” said Hanshaft. “It wasn't hard to figure out (Mastromarino) and the funeral home directors were skipping that.  They were just getting the body and getting the bones out."

Lottie Kennedy’s family has many questions.

"I do have reservations whether the urn that we have, are her remains.  As far as I know, there's no way of telling,” said McInnis.

Experts say it is difficult, if not impossible, to get a DNA profile of cremated remains.

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