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Tissue scandal touches family of BBC’s Cooke

Jun 12, 2006 | AP

After Alistair Cooke’s death in the early morning of March 30, 2004, he was wheeled out of his Upper East Side apartment on a collapsible gurney and whisked away into the darkness.

Three days later, Cooke returned home in a small, cardboard box.

Susan Cooke Kittredge examined the ashes of her father, the refined and legendary host of “Masterpiece Theatre” on PBS and longtime BBC correspondent.

Something was odd.

A minister, she had handled ashes in the past; usually there were shards of bone. Why were these smooth and fine, like talcum powder? What was a coil of wire doing in the ashes? She wondered whether it came from the knee replacement her father had had years before.

She told a few people what she found, but didn’t give it much thought.

“It never occurred to me for a minute,” she says, “that it might be a byproduct of someone having engaged in some nefarious endeavor.”

It never occurred to her that her father’s body had been plundered, its parts sold. It never occurred to her that her father would end his 95-year journey through life as a tabloid headline, embroiled in the worst scandal ever to hit the industry that deals in human tissue.

A rapid decline in health

From 1946 until shortly before his death, Cooke produced his “Letter from America,” a weekly, 13-minute show broadcast on the BBC in which he provided insights for Mother England into the character of the United States.

Cooke would type his letter in his apartment overlooking Central Park, often working in his bathrobe after a hearty breakfast – a smoky haze lingering from the previous night’s entertaining. In his long life, cigarettes were a constant.

In late 2003, he developed a nagging cough. As fall turned to winter, it became hard for him to leave his apartment.

On an unusually warm day in February 2004, he felt well enough to visit a doctor at Mount Sinai Medical Center. The news was bleak: lung cancer. It had spread to his bones; he didn’t have long to live.

Shortly before his death, Kittredge realized she had to make funeral arrangements. Her father wanted to be cremated (perhaps, she thinks, he felt it was “efficient and neat”) and so she turned to the phone book.

Thumbing through the pages, she found a good deal. The New York Mortuary Service in East Harlem agreed to do the job for about $600.

“I essentially chose the one that gave me the best price for a direct cremation,” she said.

Her father died days later. She touched his warm hand and removed his watch. When the body was gone, she concentrated on the man, not his lifeless shell.

“You want to remember the person in the fullness of their life,” Kittredge said.

And so it was that 2,000 people attended a memorial service at Westminster Abbey – a proper tribute to a man who received an honorary knighthood in 1973 and heard remarks by Mark Thompson, director-general of the BBC.

“He mistrusted dogma and blind faith wherever he found them, unless of course it involved the science of serving a perfect whiskey, or the beauty of Gabriella Sabatini’s forehand,” Thompson said. “He was genuinely taken aback when age and infirmity caught up with him in his 95th year. He had fully expected to die in harness.”

Unthinkable desecration

One Friday last December, Kittredge received a phone call from a New York City detective. Politely and respectfully, he asked whether she had heard about an investigation involving the illegal procurement and sale of body parts. She had not.

He asked whether her father was the Alistair Cooke. She said yes.

And then, he delivered the news: He had reason to suspect a New Jersey company had ransacked her father’s body.

She stopped listening. Her mind shut down. The conversation ended.

Over the weekend, she trolled the Internet looking for information about a crime that seemed like something from one of Dickens’ stories.

She called the detective on Monday. Could there be a mistake? Was there any chance that Daddy’s body had not been taken?

No. Police had the receipts for his bones, which were sold for thousands of dollars to Regeneration Technologies Inc. and Tutogen Medical Inc., companies that profit from processing cadaver tissue for use in living people.

The crooks slipped up, the detective said, leaving a paper trail. To transform him into a suitable donor and erase signs of his diseased tissue, they falsified his cause of death, listing it as a heart attack, not cancer, authorities say. The age was listed as 85, not 95.

Later, Kittredge learned the bones came from Cooke’s legs.

“To know that they chopped off his legs, then you can’t help but see in front of you a truncated person on the floor whose head comes up to the waist,” she said.

That’s when the nightmares began. Kittredge dreamed of opening a door and finding a screaming, legless father reaching out to her.

Her father was just the most famous victim of many, authorities say. They said a New Jersey company, Biomedical Tissue Services, lacked consent to take bones, tendons, ligaments, skin and other tissue from cadavers. The owner of BTS and three others have pleaded not guilty to the charges. The company has closed.

Kittredge was shocked by the possibility that some recipients of infected tissue might have become seriously ill.

And she wondered what happened to her father’s bones. Was someone using them? She was told no, that the bones were never implanted in anyone.

She’s not so sure. She doesn’t even know what happened to the rest of her father, his torso and arms. Did the remainder wind up in the trash?

And the ashes she scattered in Central Park. What were they?

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