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Four charged in a plan to sell body parts for medical use

Feb 24, 2006 | AP

The owner of a New Jersey biomedical firm made millions of dollars by stealing body parts from a Brooklyn funeral home and selling them for procedures done by doctors across the country, prosecutors said yesterday.

Michael Mastromarino, the owner of Biomedical Tissue Services of Fort Lee, N.J., Joseph Micelli, a Brooklyn mortician, and two other men were awaiting arraignment on charges including enterprise corruption, body stealing, opening graves, unlawful dissection, and forgery, according to Josh Hanshaft, an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn.

Prosecutors alleged that the men had conspired to take bones, skin, and other body parts secretly from cadavers, without the permission of the families.

The indictments were the latest chapter in a widening scandal that involved scores of funeral homes and hundreds of looted bodies, including that of the ''Masterpiece Theatre" host, Alistair Cooke, who died in March 2004.

The bodies came from funeral homes in New York City, Rochester, Philadelphia, and New Jersey that contracted with the Brooklyn funeral parlor for embalming.

Mastromarino, Micelli, Lee Crucetta, and Christopher Aldorasi allegedly forged birth certificates and consent forms to disguise the fact that some bodies were too old for harvesting techniques.

''I think we can agree that the conduct uncovered in this case is among the most ghastly imaginable," said Rose Gill Hearn, commissioner of the city Department of Investigation. ''It was shockingly callous."

''This case is unique in the utter disregard for human decency," said the Brooklyn district attorney, Charles Hynes.

The 122-count indictment alleges that the defendants forged death certificates and organ donor consent forms to create the appearance that the tissue had been legally harvested. The activities spanned from 2001 to 2005, prosecutors said.

Mastromarino went into the tissue business after losing his license as an oral surgeon, prosecutors said. Micelli was his copartner, they said.

Prosecutors allege that Mastromarino secretly removed bones, tendons, heart valves, and other tissue from cadavers at Micelli's funeral parlor.

A defense lawyer, said in a statement Wednesday that Mastromarino had followed existing rules regulating the harvesting of tissue donated by families at funeral homes.

Mastromarino ''vehemently denies doing anything illegal or wrong," the lawyer said.

Federal and local authorities launched the nine-month investigation after, they said, they received a tip that Mastromarino and others had paid off funeral homes so they could take tissue from the dead without their families' knowledge.

Investigators say that some body parts came from elderly people and perhaps victims of infectious diseases, and that the paperwork had been doctored to say they had been younger and healthier. They say the suspects had profited by selling the tissue to companies that had turned it into products used for disk replacements, dental implants, and other surgical procedures done by unsuspecting doctors across the United States.

In Cooke's case, investigators say Biomedical Tissue Services removed his bones without his family's permission before he was cremated. Cooke died of cancer at 95, but documents listed the cause of death as heart attack, and lowered his age to 85, the investigators said

Mastromarino said he ''was not responsible for interacting with the families of the deceased nor in obtaining the documentation needed to harvest the tissue," his lawyer said.

Late last year, the Food and Drug Administration ordered a recall of the potentially tainted products.

In one such case, a Long Island woman sued the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System after she tested positive for syphilis after undergoing back surgery there. After the surgery, the hospital informed her that donated human tissue harvested by Biomedical Tissue Services used in her surgery could have been tainted. A subsequent test showed that the woman did not have syphilis, and the hospital yesterday filed a request for a court order, seeking sanctions against her for ''filing frivolous litigation."

The woman, Patricia Battisti of Franklin Square, meanwhile, said she intended to file a new suit against the hospital, alleging emotional damage.

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