updated 9/28/2006 10:15:24 PM ET 2006-09-29T02:15:24

A former funeral parlor owner and embalmer accused in a plot to plunder corpses for profit admitted to investigators last year that he and his partner rarely got permission to take body parts for transplants, according to court documents.

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The papers, obtained Thursday by The Associated Press, detail a long statement given by Joseph Nicelli before he was charged in a plot to secretly remove skin, bone and other parts from hundreds of bodies from funeral homes in New York City, Rochester, N.Y., Philadelphia and New Jersey.

Nicelli implicated Michael Mastromarino, a former oral surgeon, as the mastermind of a scheme that made millions of dollars by selling the stolen tissue to biomedical companies that supply material for procedures including dental implants and hip replacements. Among the looted bodies was that of “Masterpiece Theatre” host Alistair Cooke, who died in 2004.

During a failed bid in 2005 to head off his arrest and become a cooperator, Nicelli said that after collecting bodies for embalming or cremation, he would divert them to Mastromarino to carve up without families’ permission, a police report said.

Nicelli, 50, “stated maybe he spoke with two families about a possible donation, but all other extractions were done without consent,” the report said.

He further claimed he overheard Mastromarino describing how on paperwork he “would change a donor’s criteria such as age,” the report added. “He would make them younger, which would be more attractive to the companies accepting the tissue.”

Mastromarino also changed times of death to make the parts appear fresher and extracted them from cancer victims without telling the tissue banks, some of which consider the disease a disqualifying condition, Nicelli told investigators, according to the report.

Nicelli said that when he questioned the doctored paperwork, Mastromarino told him, “Don’t worry about it.”

Fooling families
Part of Nicelli’s job was to try to restore bodies to so that grieving families wouldn’t notice bones had been removed, he said. In one instance in 2003, a daughter complained that “her father looked shorter in the coffin,” he said.

Mastromarino has denied any wrongdoing, saying it was the funeral directors’ role — not his — to obtain consent and medical histories of the dead and he took their word for it that the bodies were suitable for harvesting.

Nicelli’s statement “is consistent with what Dr. Mastromarino has been saying all along,” Mastromarino’s attorney, Mario Gallucci, said Thursday.

A telephone call to Nicelli’s attorney was not immediately returned Thursday.

Mastromarino, owner of Biomedical Tissue Services of Fort Lee, N.J.; Nicelli; and two so-called “cutters” were charged in February with body stealing, unlawful dissection and forgery in a case a district attorney called “something out of a cheap horror movie.” All the defendants pleaded not guilty before being released on bail.

At the time, prosecutors said they had unearthed evidence that death certificates and other paperwork were falsified. In Cooke’s case, his age was recorded as 85 rather than 95 and the cause of death was listed as heart attack instead of lung cancer that had spread to his bones.

The defendants are scheduled to appear in court next week. Mastromarino’s attorney said prosecutors have notified the defense they will ask for a delay in the case because a grand jury is hearing new evidence that could result in more charges.

Prosecutors declined to comment.

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