Inside the grim trade in human flesh and boneJul 2, 2006 | The Star Ledger
They came to the funeral home in expensive cars, carrying clean hospital scrubs and pushing big tool boxes on rollers. Then they went to work in a makeshift surgi cal suite inside, cutting up cadavers and removing tissue and bone for eventual sale in the body parts market.
"Two people would cut one on the left side and one on the right," said Lee Cruceta, one of the body cutters. "There was also a 'back table' guy, whose job was to open a sterile bag. We'd drop tissue in it; he'd label it and put it on ice."
The funeral home was the stately Funeraria Santa Cruz, a landmark in Newark's North Ward also known as Berardinelli Forest Hill Memorial. Until now, it has never been associated with the international stolen body parts scandal that broke in New York City last winter.
But the Fort Lee man at the center of that scandal also operated at Santz Cruz. At least some of the body parts removed from cadavers there were taken without families' consent, and the fu neral home owner is under investigation by the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office, according to law enforcement sources. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because the case is ongoing.
Santa Cruz was more than a major source of body parts, say people who worked there. It was also a training ground for future corpse-cutters.
Tissue harvesting is big business in the United States and perfectly legal, but it can also be a criminal enterprise.
As the Brooklyn District At torney says it was for Michael Mastromarino, a 42-year-old former dentist from Fort Lee indicted in February for allegedly stealing tissue and bones from 1,076 corpses in three states. The indictment made no mention of Santa Cruz at 253 Mount Prospect Ave. But Cruceta, a cutter who was charged with taking part in Mastromarino's alleged criminal enterprise, said in a recent interview with The Star-Ledger that crews worked on about 100 cadavers in a rear basement room there between February 2004 and September 2005.
Cruceta's matter-of-fact description of their work provides a rare glimpse into a dimly lit world, where unseen and anonymous workers rush in after a death to capture tissue while it is still fresh. The tissue is then sold to companies that process it for implantation in living patients. The bone-cutter's story also provides the first detailed view of how tissue-harvesting crews worked in New Jersey.
Although Cruceta and his crew used a mallet, saws and special bone-dividing tool called a osteotome, they worked quietly and did not disturb visitors who might be on hand for a funeral upstairs, he said.
"When you get down to cer tain parts of the body, it gets a little noisy," Cruceta said. "But that's a couple of minutes of noise."
The job took no more than an hour-and-a-half per cadaver, he said 45 minutes to "harvest" bones, tendons, skins, hearts or vessels, 45 minutes to close up the body.
'NOTHING SEEMED OUT OF PLACE'
Cruceta, 33, a licensed practical nurse from Monroe, N.Y., and father of four, has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him. During the interview, he said he did not believe he was doing anything wrong at Santa Cruz or other fu neral homes where he worked.
Mastromarino assured him the funeral home owners had obtained the families' consent, he said.
"Nothing seemed out of place," Cruceta said.
Stephen Finley, owner of Santa Cruz, has not been charged in connection to Mastromarino's operation. He declined to respond to repeated messages left by phone, mail and in person.
The 43-year-old resident of Mur ray Hill, a marathoner well known in running circles, bought the Newark funeral home from Carmine Be rardinelli in November 2000, property records show. From 2003 to 2005, Finley held a contract with the city of Newark to bury indi gents and unclaimed bodies; he currently holds a similar contract with Essex County through 2007.
Edgar Rivera of Newark, a former Santa Cruz employee, confirmed that Mastromarino and his crews were regular visitors to Santa Cruz in 2004 and 2005. Rivera lived in an apartment upstairs at the time; one of his responsibilities was to greet visitors; another was to pick up the bodies of the newly dead.
"Finley'd say, 'The guys are coming in today to do tissue dona tion.' I'd open the door," Rivera said. "They worked in the embalm ing room. Dr. Mike (Mastromarino) remodeled it, with new ceramic tiles on the wall. They put in one of them surgical lamps."
Rivera said he was fired from the funeral home in August 2005, just after the renovation. Finley had questioned Rivera's commit ment to the job and they argued repeatedly, he said.
The Brooklyn DA's indictment has triggered separate criminal investigations in Philadelphia and in Rochester, N.Y., where Mastroma rino's firm, Biomedical Tissue Services, worked at funeral homes. But several county, state and federal authorities in New Jersey said they are not investigating Mastroma rino, even though his crew worked at a number of funeral homes in north Jersey.
ASSESSING THE CADAVERS
Tissue donation is a booming, if loosely regulated, U.S. industry. One body can yield products worth thousands of dollars, for use in everything from spinal surgery to dental implants and collagen for plump lips. When done by the rules, tissue donation provides hope and relief to thousands of patients. Donated tissue is also used in medical research.
Authorities allege Mastroma rino did more than steal body parts. He also suppressed information about the true medical condi tions of some cadavers, passing off unsuitable tissue to tissue banks, they say. The FDA ordered his firm, BTS, to stop manufacturing in February. Mastromarino started the company after losing his dental license because of drug abuse, according to state records.
Since Mastromarino was indicted, many patients who had his tissue surgically implanted have filed suit. Mastromarino, his company, the tissue banks he supplied, and individual hospitals have been named as defendants.
Mastromarino, meanwhile, has pleaded not guilty to criminal charges. He declined a request for an interview.
Cruceta sat for an hour-long interview last week at the Manhattan office of his attorney, George Vomvolakis. The Brooklyn DA's indictment accuses him of falsifying family consent forms.
During the interview Cruceta said Mastromarino forged his name on "close to 500" consent forms and other documents, a charge denied Friday by Mastromarino's at torney, Mario Gallucci
Cruceta admitted signing oth ers, but said he misunderstood the purpose of the signature. He did not mean to signify that he had personally obtained consent from a relative, he said.
Cruceta said Mastromarino's New Jersey business started slowly, but grew nicely. He said most of the funeral homes involved were lo cated in "lower-income" areas, like the neighborhood served by Santa Cruz.
In Newark, business grew to the point funeral home owner Finley cleaned out a corner of his basement to create a storage area for crew members, Cruceta said.
About 80 percent of the cadavers he worked on at Santa Cruz were destined for cremation, rather than burial, he said. They yielded more bones and tissue than bodies that would be viewed and buried.
"If it was a cremation, we would recover (more) tissue," he said. "Otherwise, we just recovered from the lower (body)," he said.
Younger donors also yielded more. "With donors under 65 we would keep the whole knee capsule intact, for the tendons in the knee," Cruceta said. "With those over 65, we would separate the femur from the tibia."
Cruceta said it was his job to make physical assessments of bodies. They were usually lying on top of the table in the embalming room when he reported to work, he said.
At Santa Cruz he recalled one "Asian male (on whom) I found a lesion I thought was syphilis, so I ruled that case out," he said.
THE REASSEMBLY PROCESS
After cutting, crews reconstructed the body. Body-cutters routinely insert PVC pipes in place of the bones, to restore form to the body being prepared for viewing. At Santa Cruz, though, they often used wood, as "(plastic) gives off fumes and it damages the crema tion ovens," he said.
Cruceta said he worked at Santa Cruz, at various times, with cutter Christopher Aldorasi of Staten Island, who was also indicted and has pleaded not guilty; Darlene Deats and Kevin Vickers of Honeoye, N.Y., near Rochester, who trained in Newark and later worked for Mastromarino in Rochester; Kirssy Knapp of New York City, who worked for Mastromarino when he was a dentist and was his girlfriend, according to court papers, and later headed Mastromari no's Rochester operation; and occasional per-diem workers. Law enforcement sources confirmed the names.
All the cutters, as well as Mas tromarino, were certified as "tissue recovery specialists" by the American Association of Tissue Banks, an industry group that administers the certification examination.
Cruceta said he got into the business after his wife lost her job and he needed a second source of income.
"I was very impressed with Mas tromarino. He is a very smart man," he said. "I thought it was a very good career move."
Cruceta said he did not know of any financial arrangement between Mastromarino and Santa Cruz. But at other funeral homes, Mastroma rino paid funeral directors $1,000 per body, he said.
"I know because Michael asked me once to write a check to two di rectors" in Philadelphia, he said.
Funeral directors are rarely key players in cases involving tissue do nation, said William Reitsma, direc tor of clinical services for the non-profit New Jersey Organ and Tis sue Sharing Network in Springfield.
"Our donors typically come from hospitals," he said. "State law says every death in a hospital must be referred to us."
Program staffers determine if the cadavers are medically suitable for donation. If so, they approach families for consent.
"Usually we speak to the family before they've chosen the funeral home. If the answer is yes, we'll call the funeral home to say, 'This family is coming for funeral services and they've consented for dona tion.'"
Reitsma said bone and other tissue are removed in "operating rooms."
"These are sterile environments; these are not funeral homes," he said. From there the body goes to the funeral home.
Reitsma said his network pays funeral home directors "around $150 to $200" to handle bodies whose bone and tissue have been removed.
"Extra time is needed. When we take tissue, we disrupt the circula tory system. It takes longer to em balm," he said.
Berardinelli Forest Hill Memorial, renamed Santa Cruz after its sale to Finley in 2000, has long been an established institution in Newark.
In 1977, then known as Berardi nelli Funeral Home, it was engulfed by scandal when the New Jersey Board of Mortuary Science charged then-owner Carmine Berardinelli with burying 1,531 infants in mass graves rather than individual cas kets, according to state records. The complaint against Berardinelli said he had buried as many as 40 infants in one casket.
His license was ultimately suspended for six months.