Bodysnatcher inquiry begins after Cooke's bones 'stolen'

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The Independent US

The family of Alistair Cooke voiced horror yesterday over allegations that body-snatchers illicitly carved bones from the venerated broadcaster immediately after his death from cancer almost two years ago and sold them for profit.

Mr Cooke's daughter, Susan Kittredge, said she learned last week that her father may have been one of the victims of a ghoulish body-parts-for-sale scam that has been under investigation by the District Attorney's office in Brooklyn for several months.

So far, investigators believe they have uncovered about 30 cases where bodies submitted for burial or cremation in New York were illicitly plundered in an illegal trade that could be worth billions of dollars. The parts were allegedly sold to companies that recycle human tissue for use in patients.

As the investigation progresses, investigators have already disinterred three bodies - bones were missing from each of them - and may eventually dig up all 30 for examination. His bones, police believe, netted the suspects about £4,000.

Mr Cooke was an icon of journalism and broadcasting when he died from lung cancer on 20 March 2004. He was best known in Britain for his Letter From America dispatches for the BBC. In the US, he presented Masterpiece Theater, a prime-time slot of mostly British dramas on public television, for more than 20 years.

When he died, aged 95, and just four weeks after giving up his broadcasts, cancer had spread to his bones. But prosecutors believe that did not stop the suspects from surgically extracting bones from his body and selling them on. They could then have been recycled for dental implants or other bone reconstructive procedures.

Ms Kittredge told the New York Daily News that she felt "shocked and saddened" by the morbid revelation and expressed additional dismay that patients may have unwittingly received bone material from someone who was 95 and cancer-stricken.

"That people in need of healing should have received his body parts, considering his age and the fact that he was ill when he died, is as appalling to the family as is that his remains were violated," she said.

According to one source familiar with the ongoing investigation, parts stolen from dead bodies by members of the ring ranged from skin to cardiac valves as well as bones, usually the largest ones from legs and arms. To avoid detection, they would allegedly replace the bones with long PVC pipes or even broomsticks.

Mr Cooke, who lived in a 15th-floor apartment overlooking Central Park, died in the night. Family members said his body was collected by an undertaker and transported to a mortuary on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It appears he was cremated the day after. His ashes were then returned to the family who, following his wishes, sprinkled them in his beloved Central Park. It seems the suspected scavengers intervened first and harvested his bones.

Police said the Upper East Side mortuary was raided by detectives this week. Records were found indicating that authorisation had been given for organs to be donated by Mr Cooke after death. But family members indicated that no such permission had been given.

A grisly tale unearthed

The macabre case of the New York body-snatchers surfaced with the help of a whistleblower, Robert Nelms, after he purchased the Daniel George Funeral Home in Brooklyn. He and his wife, Deborah Johnson, discovered documents suggesting that secret body-chopping had occurred on the premises. At the centre of the investigation, according to police, is a former New York dentist, Michael Mastromarino, who ran a firm called Biomedical Tissue Services. Mr Mastromarino allegedly sold Alistair Cooke's bones to Regeneration Technologies of Florida and Tutogen Medical of New Jersey. Neither company would comment.