PHILADELPHIA — Three funeral directors sold 244 corpses for about $1,000 each to a New York businessman who trafficked in the resale of often-diseased body parts, a grand jury charged Thursday.
The stolen bones, skin and tissue — which are nearly impossible to trace from donor to recipient because of forged documents — were transplanted in unsuspecting medical patients worldwide, the grand jury in Philadelphia found. Families of the dead had no idea the bodies were being ransacked.
Michael Mastromarino, a businessman and former dentist, ran the scheme with help from a team of "cutters" who stole the body parts, authorities said. Mastromarino, who ran a now-defunct company called Biomedical Tissue Services, is already facing charges in New York for allegedly plundering 1,077 bodies, including those from Philadelphia.
"No penalty is too harsh for these guys, for the just unbelievably craven nature of what they did," Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham said at a news conference.
Funeral directors Louis Garzone, 65, Gerald Garzone, 47, and James McCafferty, 37, were arrested Thursday on thousands of counts, ranging from running a corrupt organization to forgery and theft of body parts.
The grand jury also charged Mastromarino and Lee Cruceta, a former nurse who allegedly ran the cutting crew, with similar counts. Mastromarino plans to surrender Tuesday and will fight the charges, his lawyer said. Mastromarino has pleaded not guilty to the New York charges.
"He was victimized by the funeral directors. The funeral directors were in charge of getting consent. All he was supposed to do was come and harvest the tissue and send the samples down to the processors," defense lawyer Mario Gallucci said.
The company sold the body parts to treat burns, replace broken bones and provide for other medical needs, the indictment said.
While the mostly poor families thought their loved ones were being cremated, the bodies were often left unrefrigerated for days, sometimes in alleys beside the funeral home, until a cutter arrived, authorities said.
"One of the cutters said it was like the back of a butcher shop, it was so dirty," Abraham said.
The funeral directors forged death certificates that said the donors had died of heart attacks or blunt-force trauma but were otherwise healthy, prosecutors said. In one such case, the donor was HIV-positive and suffered from hepatitis C and cancer. The defendants typically made up names for the donors and also forged family consent forms, the indictment said.
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The group also lowered the donors' ages and changed their dates of death to make it appear the body parts were more fresh, authorities said.
So far, authorities have learned the true identities of only 48 of the 244 bodies, Abraham said.
The extent of any medical complications that resulted from the transplants remains unknown, she said. One Philadelphia woman who believes she contracted hepatitis from a tainted body part is pursuing a civil suit.
The black-market sales went on from at least February 2004 through September 2005, prosecutors said. The Garzone brothers surrendered their state funeral licenses last year but continued to run their two homes, Abraham said.
It was not immediately known if the three funeral directors had attorneys.
Seven funeral directors in New York have pleaded guilty, including one whose funeral home allegedly removed parts from the body of the late "Masterpiece Theatre" host Alistair Cooke.
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