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New York charges four in human-tissue theft ring

Written by: Staff

NEW YORK, Feb 24 (Reuters) New York authorities has charged four men with illegally harvesting and selling tissue from 1,077 dead people in the past four years, possibly including the remains of British broadcaster Alistair Cooke.

The men, including the chief executive of a company that sold human tissue for medical implants, were indicted yesterday on charges including conspiracy, unlawful dissection and forgery.

Prosecutors said the men, working with a Brooklyn funeral home, got bones and organs from the bodies of people who were not organ donors. The tissue was then sold via legitimate medical channels for use in procedures like hip replacements.

Many of the deceased would have been ineligible as donors due to illness or age, including Cooke, a longtime host of the U.S. TV program ''Masterpiece Theater'' and known for his Letter from America BBC broadcasts, who died in 2004.

During a 15-month investigation which included the exhumation of six bodies, authorities discovered that after removing bones, the men had replaced them with plastic pipes to maintain an intact appearance. In some cases, they also left gloves, aprons and other things in the bodies.

''Bones and tissues were removed from the bodies and replaced by pipes,'' Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes told a news conference the removed parts were sold throughout the country for use in medical procedures.

What was particularly disturbing was that ''no medical precautions were taken to ensure that these tissue transplants were free from disease or defect,'' he said yesterday.

Hynes said it was unclear if any of the tissue had actually been implanted in patients.

The indictment named former dentist Michael Mastromarino, funeral home operator Joseph Nicelli, as well as Lee Crucetta and Christopher Aldorasi as participating in the scheme. The most serious charge on the 122-count indictment, of enterprise corruption, carried a possible 25-year sentence.

Attorneys for the four men could not be reached for comment.

Hynes said the group obtained bodies through a Brooklyn funeral home, Daniel George&Sons. Death certificates and consent forms were forged to make it appear the deceased wanted to donate their bodies and that they were eligible to do so.

''Invariably, the detectives (investigating the case) found the deceased were made younger and healthier on paper,'' said Ray Kelly, New York's police commissioner.

For Cooke, who died at 95 from cancer, the men altered documents to show he died at 85 of a heart attack, Hynes said.

The tissues were sold by Mastromarino's Fort Lee, New Jersey-based company, Biomedical Tissue Services Ltd., which was ordered to cease operations last month by the Food and Drug Administration. At least three companies that bought materials from Biomedical Tissue Services have issued recall notices of some of their products in recent months.

Hynes said the four men made at least 2 million dollar through the scheme.

Transplanting of tissues such as muscle, skin and bone is common in the United States and the trade in implantable body parts is legal, providing that certain conditions are met.

Reuters PDS VP0512

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