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Jury to get body parts probe


Jun 13, 2006 |

The Philadelphia district attorney's office is gearing up to subpoena witnesses to testify before a grand jury about the role of the Louis Garzone Funeral Home, and possibly others, in the nationwide body-parts scandal, according to sources close to the investigation.

The grand jury's role has come to light just a couple of days after state officials negotiated with Louis Garzone and his younger brother, Gerald Garzone, also an undertaker, to voluntarily relinquish their funeral directors' and parlors' licenses.

"I am pleased that journalism worked," said Kevin Vickers, a former tissue-company worker who first told the Daily News in a February interview that he cut up dozens of corpses inside the Louis Garzone Funeral Home.

Vickers worked for the now-defunct Biomedical Tissue Services Ltd. (BTS), based in Fort Lee, N.J., which sold tainted body parts obtained from up to 30 funeral homes in New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia.

Vickers said that he drove to Louis Garzone's funeral home several times - dissecting bodies and extracting veins, tissues and tendons - on behalf of BTS.

The failed company has become the center of a nationwide scandal involving tainted body parts. The tissue company would pay funeral directors across the tri-state area up to $1,000 per body, Vickers said.

BTS would later receive as much as $7,000 per body, according to investigators.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which shut down BTS last February, warned that implant and transplant patients could have received tissue tainted with hepatitis, syphilis and HIV. Since then, the Centers for Disease Control found numerous victims who tested positive for those illnesses.

Until the Pennsylvania Department of State's announcement last week, only Louis Garzone was named in allegations.

But on May 12, Gerald Garzone signed a state agreement to surrender his licenses, documents showed.

Still, Gerald Garzone continued to conduct funerals until June 6, the day before the state Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs officially closed down his business.

William Henion, 82, said he paid Gerald Garzone $7,300 to conduct his wife's June 5 funeral. Henion said while he read the newspaper articles detailing the alleged tissue harvesting operation inside the Louis Garzone Funeral Home, he still trusted Gerald Garzone with his wife's body.

"I would still give him a recommendation," Henion said. "I am sorry for his wife and children."

Gerald Garzone, who lives in the same building as his funeral home, said he and his family have "been here our whole lives" and does not plan on leaving his Juniata Park neighborhood.

He declined to comment further.

The state charged that the Garzones allegedly acted with "gross incompetence, negligence and misconduct over an 18-month period from 2003 to September 2005."

However, the Garzones' attorneys negotiated a plea that allowed both funeral directors to admit no wrongdoing while surrendering their licenses.

Howard Kaufman, attorney for Louis Garzone, said his client "did what he thought he needed to do.

"I do not believe his business was declining," he added.

The brothers' jointly owned cremation business, Liberty Cremation Inc., remains in good standing with the Department of State, the agency which nullified the Garzones' licenses.

"The Department of State does not license crematoriums and does not have the statutory authority to license [them]," said department spokesperson Leslie Amoros.

The state agency only licenses the funeral homes and directors in Pennsylvania.

Several local funeral homes have sent corpses to be cremated at Liberty Cremation, just across the street from the Louis Garzone Funeral Home on Somerset Street near Ruth.

Families have questioned whether body parts were taken from their loved ones whose remains were cremated at Liberty. Investigators are aware of the issue and have been seeking answers, according to sources close to the investigation.

Agnes Folger, 84, whose husband, Joseph, died in 2004, has repeatedly confronted Louis Garzone about her husband's cremation, and asked whether any body parts were removed without her permission.

Funeral director Edward Tomaszewski, who handled the funeral of Joseph Folger, said he would not use Liberty Cremation because of the body-parts scandal.

"I am not working with Mr. Garzone," he said. "It is a black eye to the industry."

Tomaszewski said he sent remains to Liberty because it was close to his funeral home on Allegheny Avenue near Frankford. But now he uses a West Philadelphia crematorium.

"It is better to sacrifice money and distance rather than your reputation," said Tomaszewski, whose family has operated the business since 1924.

Weeks after the FDA shut down BTS, the Brooklyn district attorney's office announced its indictment, saying the company failed to screen donors properly and to keep accurate records about the corpses it allegedly sliced up.

In March, the Daily News first reported that Louis Garzone was linked to the Brooklyn probe, prompting the separate investigations led by the Department of State and the Philadelphia D.A.'s office.

Cathie Abookire, spokeswoman for the Philadephia D.A., confirmed that the office was investigating but declined to say whether a grand jury was involved.

In addition to Vickers detailing his work at Louis Garzone, a second BTS worker, Lee Cruceta, told the Daily News he removed body parts at Garzone between March 2004 and September 2005.

His lawyer, George Vomvolakis, said his client, who was indicted in Brooklyn and under investigation here, will cooperate with authorities.

"He was just an employee with Biomedical," Vomvolakis said. "He was not aware of state law in Pennsylvania." It is against state law for funeral directors to authorize tissue removal.

"Everything else was left to Garzone" and BTS owner Michael Mastromarino, the lawyer said.

"Dr. Mastromarino sympathizes with the donor families and donor recipients," said Mario F. Gallucci, lawyer for BTS.

"He, too, believes he was victimized by these unscrupulous funeral directors, but he assures the public that all the tissue he harvested was tested by the processors and sterilized prior to its use."

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