In November 2004, New York Police Det.
Patricia O’Brien went to the Daniel George and Son Funeral Home in
Brooklyn to check out what she thought was a routine business dispute.
The new owners of the home complained that the man who’d sold them the
place, Joseph Nicelli, had walked off with some of their money. But
when O’Brien began looking around, she discovered something odd. On the
second floor of the funeral parlor, directly above the room where
bodies were embalmed, was a sealed space outfitted like an operating
room, with a surgical table and bright overhead lights. She also found
FedEx receipts with the names of companies that purchase human tissue
from cadavers for use in surgical procedures. Something was clearly not
right. O’Brien called in the department’s Major Case Squad, and went to
work unraveling the mystery.
week prosecutors charged four men, including Nicelli and the ring’s
supposed leader, a former Manhattan dentist named Michael Mastromarino,
with running a multimillion-dollar body-snatching business that looted
bones and tissue from more than a thousand corpses. The men, they say,
then sold the body parts to legitimate companies that supplied
hospitals around the United States. Hundreds of unsuspecting people
have received the tissue, which is used in such procedures as joint and
heart-valve replacements, back surgery, dental implants and skin
grafts. Many are now rushing to doctors to be tested for tainted
tissue. Some have already filed civil lawsuits. (One New Jersey lawyer
alone has signed up some 200 clients.)
County District Attorney Charles Hynes didn’t try to hide his disgust
in announcing the 122-count indictment, which included charges of
opening graves, body stealing, forgery, grand larceny and racketeering.
"What happened here … is like something out of a cheap horror movie."
(Lawyers for all the men have insisted their clients did nothing
who once had a lucrative dental practice, surrendered his license in
2000 because he was addicted to the painkiller Demerol. He started a
new career as a body harvester in nearby New Jersey, opening Biomedical
Tissue Services, an FDA-registered company that appeared completely
legit. Nicelli allegedly got many of the corpses from funeral directors
in New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia who had hired him to embalm
them in his Brooklyn facility. A single harvested body could yield
$7,000. Even after Nicelli sold the funeral home, he allegedly
continued to help Mastromarino sneak into the secret operating room at
night to dissect corpses. To hide their crimes, prosecutors say,
Mastromarino and his cohorts replaced looted bones with plumbing pipes,
and stuffed their surgical gloves and gowns into the bodies before
stitching them back together. After robbing the bodies, the men
allegedly forged death certificates to hide that the tissue had often
been stolen from bodies that would have been rejected as donors being
too old or sick.
convicted, Mastromarino and his alleged partners could face 25 years in
prison. That’s meager comfort to hundreds of transplant recipients all
over the country who are living with pilfered, possibly contaminated,
tissue inside them. The FDA has tried to calm fears, insisting it is
very unlikely that anyone will suffer serious health problems, since
processing companies tested and sterilized the tissue before sending it
to hospitals for implantation.
By Sarah Childress