By Steven DiJoseph*
There was a time when Gothic horror stories would frighten moviegoers who paid their quarters to see mad scientists pay grave robbers to steal the body parts and organs from graveyards.
Whether the goal was to create a monster like Frankenstein or to dabble in macabre experiments in a dimly lit 19th century medical school, audiences were revolted by the very notion of dead bodies being violated and mutilated once they had been laid to rest.
Today, you can rent those grainy black-and-white movies and wonder what all the fuss was about or you can really be nauseated by simply opening your daily newspaper, turning on your TV, or listening to the radio. Now, the revolting practice of illegal trafficking in human organs, body parts, and tissue has, like almost everything else, become big business.
While the scandal has been developing for several years, a logical starting point for a discussion of the problem is March 2004 when UCLA’s Director of the Willed Body Program, Henry Reid, was arrested and a criminal investigation launched into the activities of others at the University of California for the illegal sale of body parts.
That series of events focused attention on the fact that one cadaver could be dismembered and sold in parts for over $200,000 to the pharmaceutical and medical industries.
It became shockingly clear that illegal Ã¢â‚¬Å“chop shopsÃ¢â‚¬Â were not confined to the stolen automobile trade. There was, in fact, an underground network of body part traders who utilized university medical centers as “fronts” for their ghoulish business.
Advances in surgery and other medical techniques also fueled an underground trade in transplantable tissues and organs that quickly became a multi-billion a year business.
Among the unspeakable horrors linked to this trafficking was the kidnapping of homeless children (for their transplantable tissues and organs) along the border between the U.S. and Mexico and the forced removal of organs from prisoners in third-world countries for sale in the U.S.
The probe of the UCLA Medical Center went back as far as 1998. Also arrested in March 2004 was Ernest Nelson, a body parts dealer who claimed to have paid Reid over $700,000 for permission to enter the UCLA body freezer and literally chop up some 800 cadavers and harvest their parts.
The cadavers stored at the university were supposed to be used exclusively by medical students for study. Nelson provided documentation to authorities that allegedly proved high level UCLA administrators had knowledge of and approved the secret sale of the body parts.
Reid, employees under his supervision, and others at the UCLA Medical Center appeared to have avoided detection by keeping some of the donated cadavers Ã¢â‚¬Å“off the booksÃ¢â‚¬Â and by possibly accepting cadavers that were never recorded.
At that time, there had been numerous reports of homeless persons vanishing from the downtown Los Angeles “Skid Row” area located close to UCLA. There had been unexplained disappearances of UCLA students as well. One of those students was 18-year-old freshman, Michael Negrete, who vanished from his dormitory on December 10, 1999, and has never been found.
The pharmaceutical and medical industries pay very well for a host of body parts including skin, scalps, fingernails, tendons, heart valves, skulls and bones, which then find there way into research, manufacturing of drugs, and replacement surgery.
Medical device and instrument manufacturers often use these harvested body parts in training seminars for doctors.
In 2004, Johnson & Johnson was named in court documents as having contracted with Nelson for certain human tissue samples.
In addition to such scandals as the University of California Medical Center being used to “launder” cadaver parts, are numerous underground clinics that perform transplants involving illegally obtained organs.
It is suspected that many of these organs are being taken from children kidnapped along the U.S. border with Mexico and transplanted into wealthy American patients in underground clinics in Mexico and Texas.
The burgeoning trade in human organs was the focus of a 2003 film titled “Dirty Pretty Things.” The film starred Audrey Tautou and was directed by Stephen Frears. It provided a glimpse into the hidden world of illegal immigrants and the trafficking in human organ that exploits their desperation for profit.
One of the serious problems with this illegal trafficking is that it circumvents all screening and testing procedures set up and maintained to ensure recipients will not receive diseased or otherwise contaminated tissue or organs. With the possibility that dozens of unsuspecting patients could receive tissue or bone from a single diseased cadaver, the potential for a medical catastrophe cannot be minimized.
All one needs to do is to consider the fact that, within the past few years, nine people have died as a result of receiving transplanted organs from only two donors infected with a rodent virus known as lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV).
Currently, a scandal with nationwide implications is unfolding in New York City. In Brooklyn, alone, some 1,000 corpses are part of the District Attorney’s investigations into the theft and sale of bones and other body parts removed from fresh corpses at several funeral homes, without permission, and sold to BioMedical Tissue Services, a Fort Lee, N.J., tissue recovery company run by Michael Mastromarino.
Bones and body parts were replaced with everything from broomsticks and pipes to plumbing supplies. It is even being alleged that body parts from British actor and host of Masterpiece Theatre, Allistaire Cooke were stolen and sold to BioMedical.
These illegally removed body parts include bones for orthopedic procedures and dental implants, tendons and ligaments for those with tears or other damage, and skin for burn victims and cosmetic surgery.
Unfortunately, the tissue and bones were harvested without regard to the cause of death and without proper screening for diseases and other contamination.
As a result, Lifecell Inc. announced a voluntary recall of three products made from body parts acquired from BioMedical Tissue Services. They are AlloDerm, used for plastic surgery, burn and periodontal procedures; Repliform used for gynecological and urological surgical procedures; and GraftJacket, used for orthopedic applications and lower extremity wounds.
In addition, many medical facilities and hospitals have been forced to notify patients of the possibility that they may have contracted any one or more of a number of serious and even life-threatening diseases from the bone or tissue grafts they received.
North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System, for example, telephoned and sent letters to 42 former patients advising them that they may have been exposed to potentially contaminated body parts. The letters state the hospital had indirectly received human bone, skin and tendons from BioMedical Tissue Services which may not have properly screened them for infectious diseases.
Health officials are concerned that tens of thousands of people across the country, and possibly more on Long Island, may have been exposed by untested parts from BioMedical.
BioMedical is already being sued by two New York families who claim a relative’s body parts were stolen from the grave and sold to the New Jersey company. Hundreds are already being tested for various diseases.
Many of the body parts used on Long Island were purchased from BioMedical by a Florida tissue bank responsible for testing and sterilizing every body part it buys.
In an interview with Tucker Carlson on MSNBC, famed forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht discussed how something this ghoulish can happen in America.
He stated that when bodies were sent to certain Brooklyn funeral homes for the necessary embalming, consent forms were forged giving permission to remove Ã¢â‚¬Å“various bones, tendons, ligaments, heart valves, teeth and so on. Not major organs like heart and lungs and kidneys, because that just could not work.Ã¢â‚¬Â
According to Wecht this isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t the first time something like this has happened. Ã¢â‚¬Å“IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve been involved in some cases over the yearsÃ¢â‚¬Â¦they were doing this with eyes. A funeral director tied in with an autopsy technician in a large hospital, and they were taking out peopleÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s eyes and selling them to foreign countries.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Dr. Wecht noted that in forging the necessary documents, ages and causes of death were changed. Ã¢â‚¬Å“They eliminated things like cancer and put in heart disease.Ã¢â‚¬Â
In October, the Food and Drug Administration directed the recall of all tissue harvested by Biomedical. It also urged that recipients of tissue that originated with Biomedical be tested for communicable diseases.
Additional litigation has been commenced in the form of a class-action on behalf of the estates of the 1,000-plus victims. Ã¢â‚¬Å“The tissue and organs that have been removed from our beloved brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, good friends Ã¢â‚¬â€œ theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve gone to other people who are now having these diseased parts in them,Ã¢â‚¬Â said Dainis Zeltins, whose brotherÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s body parts were stolen.
MastromarinoÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s lawyer maintains that his client believed the tissue and bone pieces were sterilized by his distributors, Regeneration Technologies Inc. and Tutogen Medical. Mastromarino says Ã¢â‚¬Å“if they werenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t (sterilized), then that was the fault of the distributors who were sterilizing the tissue and cleaning it.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Only yesterday came the announcement that five additional families in the Rochester (New York) area have joined the federal lawsuit that accuses BioMedical of unlawfully harvesting body parts without consent.
The expanded lawsuit also alleges three more funeral homes aided the scheme by providing access to bodies and failing to obtain proper consent.
Since more and more people are coming came forward in response to the initial suit being filed on March 7, the attorney representing the plaintiffs will ask that the lawsuit be designated a class action, allowing it to move forward on behalf of multiple plaintiffs with similar allegations.
A Brooklyn grand jury has already indicted Mastromarino, his partner, Joseph Nicelli, and two other men. Mastromarino ran BioMedical, Nicelli operated funeral homes, and the other men, Lee Crucetta and Chris Aldorasi, are alleged to have been the ones who cut up the bodies and replaced missing bones with creative carpentry and plumbing work.
Finally, as reported in nypress.com, there is an interesting angle to the story in terms of who was not named in the indictment; NYPD Detective Joseph Tully, MastromarinoÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s business partner and operator of two funeral homes. Tully was also employed as a security guard at the Bronx County Medical ExaminerÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s office.
Although Tully appeared to be closely linked to the case, was named in the first two lawsuits, and was even the subject of an internal police department investigation, he has now mysteriously vanished from the matter. No public statement has been issued by the NYPD, Tully, or anyone else as to whether he was cleared of any culpability or still has some involvement.
Based upon the revelations so far in this case and the problem of illegal harvesting of body parts, tissue, and bones in general, there promises to be years of criminal prosecutions, civil lawsuits, and revelations that would make Dr. Frankenstein proud.
(*Assisted by Eileen Farrell, a Communications Major at St. Francis College)