'Bodysnatching' gang charged with stealing Alistair Cooke's bones

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The Independent US

Prosecutors in New York charged the head of a biomedical tissue company and three others with illegally harvesting body parts from corpses and selling the tissues at high profit for transplant operations all across the United States and Canada.

It was revealed in December that among bodies that had been illicitly plundered by the ring was that of Alistair Cooke, the long-time broadcaster of the BBC radio programme, Letter From America. He died in 2004.

The case was "like something out of a cheap horror movie," the Brooklyn District Attorney, Charles Hynes, said. Prosecutors allege bones, tendons, skin, heart valves and other tissues were harvested without permission from 1,077 cadavers from four funeral homes in three states.

In Mr Cooke's case, the so-called body snatchers removed his leg bones and distributed them for medical use even though the broadcaster had died from cancer, aged 94. Yesterday, however, an official said Mr Cooke's bones had been sent to two body-part banks but that they had been rejected for further use.

Facing the most serious charges is a former New Jersey dentist, Michael Mastromarino. After having his dentistry license rescinded, he started up his firm, Biomedical Tissue Services, prosecutors said. His co-defendants also charged yesterday were two "cutters", Chris Aldorasi and Lee Cruceta. Also charged was Joseph Micelli, an embalmer.

According to the charges, the defendants altered and forged death certificates and forged donation consent forms for the bodies they intended to harvest. At the heart of the operation was a mortuary in Brooklyn, owned by Mr Micelli. All the bodies involved were received from funeral homes in Rochester, New York, Philadelphia and cities in New Jersey, which had embalming contracts with the mortuary.

Unbeknown to his family, the body of Mr Cooke had both leg bones removed. By way of disguising the theft, PVC pipes were put in their place. The bones were sold to two legitimate transplant companies for $7,000 (£3m500). The ring also changed his death certificate to say he died at the age of 85.

"I think we can agree that the conduct uncovered in this case is among the most ghastly imaginable," said Rose Gill Hearn, commissioner of the Department of Investigation. "It was shockingly callous in its disregard for the sanctity of human remains."

Harvesting from bodies is legal in the United States. The recovered tissues are used in operations such as replacing heart valves. However, strict conditions must be met before bodies can be used.

Mr Mastromarino turned himself in to authorities yesterday, but declared his innocence.