updated 3/18/2008 3:39:00 PM ET 2008-03-18T19:39:00

The mastermind of a scheme to plunder corpses from funeral homes and sell them for millions of dollars pleaded guilty Tuesday in a deal that could send him to prison for the next five decades.

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Michael Mastromarino, a 44-year-old former oral surgeon, confessed to the judge that he carried out the scheme from 2001 to 2005. He will face between 18 years and 54 years and will have to forfeit $4.68 million.

He faced a long list of charges, including enterprise corruption, body stealing, grand larceny and forgery.

The plea comes more than two years after the gruesome scandal broke, with evidence that corpses were being hacked up without permission or proper screening for diseases and sold for dental implants, knee and hip replacements and other procedures around the country. The looted bodies included that of “Masterpiece Theatre” host Alistair Cooke.

Authorities released photos of exhumed corpses that were boned below the waist. Prosecutors said the defendants had made a crude attempt to cover their tracks by sewing PVC pipe back into the bodies in time for open-casket wakes.

Dressed in a button-down Ralph Lauren shirt and blue jeans, Mastromarino methodically outlined the gruesome scheme in a nearly hourlong confession.

He talked about how he forged records, including the times of death and the ages of the dead, while also telling the judge he switched blood and tissue samples.

“What he did was wrong,” said his defense lawyer, Mario Galluci. “I feel horrible for the victims in this case. There is no excuse for what he did.”

Prosecutor Josh Hanshaft said Mastromarino “mutilated the bodies for greed.”

Mastromarino was the owner of Biomedical Tissue Services, a New Jersey company that shipped bones, skin and tendons to tissue processors such as Regeneration Technologies Inc., LifeCell Corp. and Tutogen Medical Inc. The bodies came from funeral homes in New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and about 10,000 people received tissue supplied by BTS.

Those companies face hundreds of civil lawsuits from people who received the tissue in transplants and from the families of loved ones who had their body parts taken without permission.

Prosecutors said Mastromarino’s actions posed a “grave risk” to transplant recipients, and that he showed a “depraved indifference” by shipping body parts that came from people with cancer or other diseases.

Mastromarino reached the plea deal earlier this year, but it nearly fell apart as prosecutors decided they wanted a trial. A judge nixed that plan, however.

Mastromarino will plead guilty to related charges in Philadelphia, lawyer A. Charles Peruto Jr. said Tuesday. The plea will likely come April 4, his scheduled trial date.

Others charged in the BTS case are Chris Aldorasi, Joseph Nicelli and Lee Cruceta. Aldorasi, a cutter, is on trial in Brooklyn. Cruceta has pleaded guilty, and Nicelli, who suffered a head injury, has been removed from the case until he recovers.

During a news conference, Galluci said the companies that accepted those parts should be prosecuted. He said they pressured his client to get more bodies and didn’t ask any questions.

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