At least four funeral homes stole human body parts from thousands of corpses to sell for use in transplants in a scheme in which seven funeral directors have pleaded guilty, New York prosecutors said on Wednesday.
The plot's suspected ringleader, Michael Mastromarino, a former New Jersey oral surgeon who ran a Fort Lee, New Jersey, company that sold human tissue for medical implants, pleaded not guilty on Wednesday along with three others to new charges in the case, including body stealing and opening graves.
The prosecutor said the case raised concerns that some tissue provided for possible use in transplants could have been tainted.
"These ghoulish thieves thought they could pull off the crime of the century, stealing bones from the dead, without any thoughts of their victims' families or the transplant recipients who would receive possibly tainted bone and tissue grafts," Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes said in a statement.
One of the bodies possibly harvested was that of famed British broadcaster Alistair Cooke, longtime host of the U.S. TV program "Masterpiece Theater," who died in 2004. Prosecutors said the suspects changed documents to show Cooke died at age 85 of a heart attack, not at age 95 from cancer.
The seven unidentified funeral directors who pleaded guilty to undisclosed charges agreed to cooperate in the investigation, Hynes said. They all agreed to surrender their licenses and face prison time, based on their level of involvement, he said.
Court papers said Mastromarino and the three others worked with funeral homes to take bones and organs from dead people without the consent of their families or from people who were ineligible for organ donations because they had died of serious illnesses.
They sold the parts through legal medical channels for hip replacements and other operations, resulting in a profit of millions, according to the court papers
The four men forged death certificates and organ-donor consent forms to create the appearance the dead donated their bodies and were eligible to do so, court papers said.
The 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 certain conditions are met.
Mastromarino and the three others were previously indicted in February on charges including conspiracy, unlawful dissection and forgery. Those charges were superseded by the indictment announced on Wednesday.
A grand jury brought the additional charges against the men in a new indictment including the suspected theft of more bodies at funeral homes in Rochester, New York, the Bronx and Manhattan, Hynes said.
Prosecutors said it was suspected that more funeral homes were involved in the scheme.
The suspects remain free on bail. They each face a maximum of 25 years in prison.