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NYC probing possible thefts of body parts

Authorities believe corpses were carved, then sold for profit

NEW YORK -- Michael Bruno was an immigrant who worked hard and spoke his mind, then succumbed to kidney cancer two years ago at age 75.

''Typical Italian cab driver," recalled his son, Vito. ''He had an opinion about everything."

It's only after death that his story became ghoulish.

Authorities believe his body and those of hundreds of other people -- including British broadcaster Alistair Cooke -- were carved up in the back rooms of several funeral parlors citywide to remove human bone, skin, and tendons without required permission from their families. Authorities allege that the body parts were then sold for a profit.

Worse, health officials fear some of the body parts were diseased, and could infect patients who received them in skin grafts, dental implants, or other orthopedic procedures -- a risk concealed by paperwork doctored with forged signatures and false information.

''It's not just disrespectful to my father," said Vito Bruno, who has sued one of the funeral homes. ''It's an absolutely hideous crime against other people."

In the Cooke case, authorities confirmed this week that investigators contacted the late broadcaster's family after finding paperwork indicating his bones had been removed and sold by Biomedical Tissue Services, a tissue bank in Fort Lee, N.J., before he was cremated. Cooke, who had been host of the PBS program ''Masterpiece Theatre," died from cancer last year at 95 in Manhattan.

Relatives insist they never agreed to the procedure, and that someone had falsified documents by changing his cause of death to heart attack, and by lowering his age to 85. Harvesting bones from cancer patients violates rules by the Food and Drug Administration.

A daughter, Susan Cooke Kittredge, said relatives were ''shocked and saddened" by the news. ''That people in need would have received his body parts, considering his age and the fact he was ill when he died, is appalling to the family. . . . His remains were violated," she said.

The probe, first reported by the New York Daily News in October, has uncovered other gruesome images. In one instance, the corpse of a Queens grandmother that investigators exhumed last month had nearly all the bones removed below the waist and replaced with PVC pipes.

A state grand jury in Brooklyn has been hearing evidence against at least a half-dozen funeral homes and against Biomedical Tissue Services. Authorities allege that they illegally profited by conspiring to sell stolen body parts, and say indictments could be issued early next year.

In the fall, the FDA ordered a recall of products produced by tissue processors in New Jersey, Florida, Georgia, and Texas, all customers of Biomedical Tissue Services. Since then, authorities in Canada have determined that about 300 potentially tainted products were imported there, and used for dental surgery on at least two patients.

Health officials advised physicians that patients who were implanted with the tissue should be tested for HIV, hepatitis, and other infectious diseases. Officials said they believed the health hazards were minimal, and no infections have been reported since the FDA warning.

But past cases have demonstrated dire risks. In 2001, a Minnesota man died after a knee surgery from an infection caused by a bacterium traced to cartilage from an infected donor. A year later, health officials in Oregon announced that several patients were infected with hepatitis C after receiving donated organs and tissue from a single corpse.

Authorities say the Brooklyn case stems from a deal between a dentist who started Biomedical Tissue Services, Michael Mastromarino, 42, and Joseph Nicelli, 49, an embalmer and funeral parlor operator from Staten Island.

Investigators suspect Nicelli helped secure access to tissue and bones from funeral directors for $500 to $1,000 a body. Mastromarino allegedly would remove the body parts, then ship them to processors, who paid thousands per order.

Lawyers for Nicelli and Mastromarino didn't return phone calls by the Associated Press seeking comment, but have previously maintained the men did nothing wrong. A number listed for Biomedical Tissue Services was disconnected.

The Brooklyn case demonstrates the potential pitfalls of allowing funeral homes and tissue banks to do business without stricter oversight, said Annie Cheney, author of the upcoming book ''Body Brokers."

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