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Body-parts probe expands

Apr 18, 2006

The Philadelphia district attorney's office recently raided a Kensington funeral home and has conducted interviews here and in New York in an attempt to gather evidence of the parlor's role in a national body-parts scandal.

In the past week, investigators have interviewed at least two tissue-recovery technicians from the now defunct Biomedical Tissue Services Inc. who say that they extracted bones, veins and tendons from corpses of deceased Philadelphians, according to several sources close to the investigation.

Late last month, Philadelphia investigators paid a surprise visit to employees at Louis Garzone Funeral Home and questioned workers for several hours, said one source.

The D.A.'s office is trying to determine how many local corpses were dissected, how much money was exchanged for the work, and how Garzone began its relationship with the Fort Lee, N.J., biomedical-tissue company, sources said.

Assistant District Attorney Joseph Zaffarese asked that "anyone with information regarding this investigation or anyone who believes a family member has been victimized" contact his office.

But Zaffarese declined to discuss any details of the case.

The special-investigations unit of the D.A.'s office opened its investigation after the Daily News reported that the Kensington funeral home was linked to the probe by the Brooklyn district attorney's office.

Brooklyn prosecutors have said that up to 30 funeral homes in New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia supplied body parts, possibly tainted, to Biomedical Tissue Services without seeking consent from the deceased persons' families.

In February, the Brooklyn D.A. brought indictments against Biomedical owner Michael Mastromarino and his partner, Joseph Nicelli, and two tissue-recovery specialists, Lee Cruceta and Christopher Aldorasi.

Philadelphia funeral director Louis Garzone, 63, was not named in the Brooklyn indictment and did not return a phone message last night from the Daily News.

Early last week, local prosecutors traveled to New York City to meet with former Biomedical worker Cruceta, Cruceta's lawyer said.

Cruceta recently said that he had cut up bodies at Garzone's parlor, on Somerset Street near Ruth, from February 2004 to last September.

"He is not hiding the fact that he worked in the Garzone funeral home," said George Vomvolakis, Cruceta's attorney. Cruceta also worked in parlors in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Rochester, Vomvolakis said.

On Thursday, Cruceta's ex-colleague, Kevin Vickers, said he had driven from his home outside Rochester, N.Y., to Philadelphia to meet with prosecutors.

Vickers declined to share what had been discussed during his visit, saying he was following investigators' orders by not talking openly about the case.

But Vickers told the Daily News earlier this year that he had dissected dozens of bodies at Garzone during the last two months of 2004. Vickers was not named in the Brooklyn indictment.

New York City police learned about Biomedical's eerie partnership with the funeral homes in November 2004, after a detective discovered an operating room in a Brooklyn parlor used by the firm to carve tissue from corpses.

Eleven months later, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration began its investigation into Biomedical. It closed down the tissue company in February, citing it for not properly screening the body parts for disease.

Biomedical sold parts to unknowing tissue banks across the country that used them for tissue transplants for trusting patients, Brooklyn prosecutors said. Some of the parts also were turned into bone paste, skin grafts and dental implants.

Regionally, 16 surgical patients here and 78 at the Jersey shore have been notified that they may have received contaminated tissue.

Cruceta and his three colleagues have pleaded not guilty to the Brooklyn charges, which include body-stealing, unlawful dissection and forgery.

They all are free on bail ranging from $250,000 to $1.5 million.

It is not illegal in New York to remove tissue from corpses inside a funeral home, but in Pennsylvania, only corneas can be taken from corpses inside funeral homes.

Sources said Philadelphia prosecutors are aggressively investigating why Garzone allegedly ignored the state rule.

Both Vickers and Cruceta said they were clueless about Pennsylvania laws and had just been following their bosses' directions to work on bodies at Garzone's.

"He was shocked," said Vomvolakis, describing Cruceta's reaction when a reporter informed him about the Pennsylvania law after a recent Brooklyn court hearing on his case.

"He has no idea," Vomvolakis said.

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