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Black Market Body Parts

Aired January 11, 2006 - 18:00:00   ET


JONATHAN MANN, CNN HOST (voice-over): A bizarre betrayal. New York police have discovered a lucrative black market in stolen human remains, and both the dead and the living are its victims.

SUSAN COOKE KETTREDGE, ALISTAIR COOKE'S DAUGHTER: When I first received that phone call about 10 days before Christmas, all I can say is that I learned the meaning of the world dumbfounded.


MANN: Hello and welcome.

The story we'll tell you today is a strange, unsettling one, so be warned. Authorities in New York and nearby areas believe that hundreds of bodies headed for burial or cremation were secretly dismembered instead and then their skin, bones and other tissues were sold off to unsuspecting medical centers that hoped to use them for transplant.

Families that were in mourning are now enraged.

On our program today, people, piece by piece.

CNN's Deborah Feyerick has the story.


DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Michael Bruno was a good old New York City cab driver with an opinion about everything, even his own death. After a losing battle with cancer two years ago, his son Vito honored his last wishes.

VITO BRUNO, ALLEGED VICTIM'S SON: My father had requested to be cremated.

FEYERICK: And today, in this box, lie Michael Bruno's remains. At least that's what Vito used to think. Now he's not so sure.

BRUNO: This was the remains of Michael Bruno.

FEYERICK: And now what do you think?

BRUNO: I don't know what this is. Don't know what's in here at all.

FEYERICK: That's because Michael Bruno may have unwillingly become the victim of a scandal that's making ghoulish headlines. It's sending shock waves through a billion dollar industry that until now has remained out of the spotlight, the business of human body parts.

It's an industry that relies on the goodwill of donors who believe they're helping medical research or saving lives. And business is booming. Heads, torsos, limbs, you name it, command hefty prices. By one estimate, a single body chopped into pieces can be worth up to $150,000. The donor never sees a penny, but it seems everyone else does, including the funeral home, which can charge a thousand dollars per body for storage and transportation.

And Michael Bruno is not alone. Another alleged victim.

ALISTAIR COOKE, FMR. TV HOST: Alistair Cooke, "Masterpiece Theatre," good night.

FEYERICK: TV host Alistair Cooke, most famous for PBS's "Masterpiece Theatre." Some of Cooke's bones were allegedly stolen before he was cremated.

New York City investigators believe they may be among hundreds if not more whose body parts were taken without permission and passed off as legitimate donations to companies which make money processing the bodies and providing them to the medical community.

BRUNO: It's just beyond anything anybody could ever comprehend. It's just the sickest, sickest story you could hear.

FEYERICK: The Brooklyn District Attorney has launched a massive investigation, trying to piece together how the suspected ring worked. In question, six funeral homes where a number of thefts appear to have taken place along with two men at the center of the case, Dr. Michael Mastromarino of Bio Medical Tissue Services in New Jersey, and his partner, embalmer Joseph Naselli (ph). Police believe they may have carved up bodies without consent then changed the cause of death to conceal deadly disease like cancer. This way, the stolen body parts could be marketed as healthy to an industry desperate for donations.

TODD R. OLSON, PH.D., ALBERT EINSTEIN COLLAGE OF MEDICINE: We are dealing simply with an open market where the supply and the demand is the only limiting factor on how much people are going to be able to profit.

FEYERICK: So why didn't anyone notice? Many of the dead were cremated or doctored to hide missing parts. Bones, for example, may have been taken out and swapped with plumbing pipe. Yes, plumbing pipe.

Mario Gallucci represents Dr. Mastromarino.

(on camera): Did your client, as suggested, replace any bones or anything in a cadaver with pipe?


FEYERICK: He replaced with bones with pipe?

GALLUCCI: Absolutely.

FEYERICK: Because?

GALLUCCI: That's the appropriate way to replace bone. It's a medical piping. It's not -- he did not go to Home Depot and buy PVC pipe and put it into donors.

FEYERICK (voice-over): Vito Bruno says he learned of the alleged theft when a New York City detective showed up at his door with a donation consent form Bruno had supposedly signed.

BRUNO: It was not my signature, so they forged my name.

FEYERICK: Bruno also says his father's cause of death was listed falsely as hearth disease instead of kidney cancer.

BRUNO: I was really angry and really concerned. You know, concerned that these body parts went into other people, people got diseased body parts.

FEYERICK: In the case of Alistair Cooke, his consent form read heart attack, not the lung cancer which his daughter says actually killed him.

How many other victims were there and how long had body parts theft gone undetected? In Denver, Colorado, some 1,800 miles away, an apparent whistle blower.

(on camera): How many people could receive tissue from a single donor?

DR. MICHAEL BAUER, BONFILS BLOOD CENTER: We have had a recent case where we've traced it back and there were over 90 different patients who were benefiting.

FEYERICK: 90 different patients.

BAUER: That's exactly right.

FEYERICK (voice-over): Michael Bauer examines donated body parts for disease. He says he discovered phone numbers on donor records sent by Mastromarino's company were bogus.

BAUER: I still hoped that there would be a logical explanation for it. What was going through my mind was, Dr. Mastromarino had not received permission to recover these tissues.

GALLUCCI: Nobody has shown us that absolutely anything has been done inappropriately. These allegations, nobody's been charged with any crime.

FEYERICK: Even so, the FDA ordered a nationwide recall of body parts from Mastromarino's company. Parts like skin, heart valves, bones, key to cosmetic and reconstructive surgery. Patients who received those questionable parts are now getting grim warnings: get tested for hepatitis, syphilis and HIV.

In Texas, Rolando Estrada got one of those calls after his doctor used what he thought was a healthy cadaver ligament to repair a Estrada's knee.

ROLANDO ESTRADA, TRANSPLANT RECIPIENT: And that's when it really sank in, that I could have been something life threatening, and that's kind of when I started getting really worried.

FEYERICK: Luckily, Estrada's tests came back negative, but his case is one of many sparking fear and concern among thousands of people throughout the United States and Canada. And though processing companies insist that rigorous testing weeds out diseased body parts, in New Jersey three people have tested positive for hepatitis and syphilis after receiving implants they believe came from Mastromarino's company.

Sanford Rubenstein is Bruno's attorney in a lawsuit against the New Jersey doctor, his partner and the funeral home which handled his father's cremation.

SANFORD RUBENSTEIN, VITO BRUNO'S ATTORNEY: This is a double outrage. It's an outrage not just to the families who without consent saw their loved ones, who were deceased, their body parts used in others, but it's an outrage to those people who received tissues.

Dr. Todd Olson teaches anatomy at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. In recent years he has watched the corpse trade explode.

OLSON: It's the ideal, you know, capitalistic commodity here. You get it for nothing and all you are doing is charging for processing, packaging, shipping, storing, and disposing of it.

FEYERICK: Federal law prohibits the sale of any human body part, but it does allow for go-betweens to be reimbursed for reasonable expenses. The problem is, there are no limits as to what's considered reasonable and no paper trail to track the movement and there's little regulation or oversight.

OLSON: There are more laws that regulate shipping ahead of lettuce into the state of California than there would be to ship a human head. I think the general public would be outraged if they knew the amount of money that is involved in this.

GALLUCCI: You get a fee for curing the blood sample. You get a fee for storing the tissue. And then you get a fee for shipping the tissue, and that's it. The only money transpired with the doctor is that.

FEYERICK (on camera):: Can you get rich by doing what the doctor was doing?

GALLUCCI: Rich? No, I don't think you can get rich.

FEYERICK (voice-over): In New York, investigators have begun the grizzly task of digging up bodies from cemeteries like this one, to see for themselves if bones, limbs and other body parts are missing. The funeral home which handled Michael Bruno's body denied any ties to the alleged body snatching ring. Embalmer Joseph Naselli (ph) and his attorney both denied our requests for an interview.

Vito Bruno, meanwhile, is left with anger and doubt.

(on camera): to think that you could actually make a business by illegally selling -- illegally taking body parts.

BRUNO: Sounds like a bad movie, doesn't it?

FEYERICK (voice-over): But it's not. It's a real life bone snatching scam which, if proven, could expose the dark side of the death business.

Deborah Feyerick, CNN, New York.


MANN: We take a break now. When we come back, the daughter of Alistair Cooke describes her families shock and horror over the desecration of her father's remains.

Stay with us.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The idea that his 95-year-old diseased bones should be given to anyone who is need of healing, who is ill, is just outrageous and unconscionable.




MANN (voice-over): Alistair Cooke was an unusual New Yorker, a transplanted British subject who never lost his English roots, even as he made Manhattan his home. Cooke spent 58 years explaining the United States to the English, but his famous "Letter from America," on the BBC.

COOKE KETTREDGE: Alistair Cooke, "Masterpiece Theatre."

MANN: . and "Masterpiece Theatre" and other programs on American TV. Cooke asked to be cremated and have his remains scattered in Central Park. As we've heard, his family now believes that not all of him ended up there.


Welcome back.

Cooke's eventual fate wasn't only shocking, it was potentially dangerous. His remains weren't only stolen, they were sold for transplant, as we've heard, under false pretenses, as those of a younger and healthier man. Alistair Cooke's bones went for $7,000.

Our colleague, Paula Zahn, talked about the case with his daughter, Susan Cooke Kettredge.


PAULA ZAHN, CNN HOST: So did anyone in your family consent to having your father's body parts removed upon his death?

: Absolutely not.

ZAHN: How did this happen?

COOKE KETTREDGE: I have no idea how it happened. It seems pretty clear that there was a miscarriage of justice, that there was violation, that there was theft, that there was a wanton disregard, both for the living and for the dead.

ZAHN: So tell me about the phone call you got from investigators informing you that your father's body had been sold for body parts.

COOKE KETTREDGE: When I first received that phone call about 10 days before Christmas, all I can say is that I learned the meaning of the word dumbfounded. I was completely struck dumb and when I hung up the phone I just sat slack jawed and stared into space. It was inconceivable that it could have happened.

And in the days that followed, when I called back and asked if there might in fact be some mistake and was informed that actually not, that they had receipts for my father's bones, the horror of it really began to sink in.

ZAHN: Because you never signed any consent form at all.

COOKE KETTREDGE: Absolutely not. According to the investigators at the district attorney's office, Michael Mastromarino says that he telephoned me and spoke with me and I gave him verbal consent.

ZAHN: But you claim that never happened.

COOKE KETTREDGE: Which I did not. That never happened.

ZAHN: So now that you've had time to reflect upon this, what are the emotions you feel when you think about your father's body being allegedly desecrated and someone profiting off that process?

COOKE KETTREDGE: Well, first I have to say that the idea that his 95- year-old diseased bones should be given to anyone who is in need of healing, who is ill, is just outrageous and unconscionable. That people have been made ill because of this travesty is just appalling and heartbreaking.

ZAHN: Because in fact your father died from cancer that had metastasized. So it was in his bones.

COOKE KETTREDGE: He had lung cancer.

ZAHN: And yet on these consent forms, it says that your father was not 95 years old, that he was 85 years old, and that he died from a heart attack.

COOKE KETTREDGE: That's correct. That's correct.

ZAHN: When you heard that, what was your reaction? That that information had allegedly been falsified?

COOKE KETTREDGE: Well, it's hard -- you know, the whole thing is so horrific, the idea that there was fraud involved is really less -- has less of an impact on me than the idea that someone took him at midnight after he died and took him where? I don't know. And did something to him that was pretty horrific.

It's very clear to me that bodies are important. Even though that body may be empty, it is a body we have loved. It is a body that has in some sense been a vessel, a hull for the spirit of our loved ones, and we make decisions along with our loved ones about what should happen to that body, and we hope that they are treated with respect and with the honor and the thanks that they deserve.

ZAHN: Susan, who do you hold responsible for the alleged theft of your father's body parts?

COOKE KETTREDGE: We know the names of the people who have been involved in this, some of them. I don't know how far and wide the corruption goes. I would certainly -- it seems it would be appropriate to hold Michael Mastromarino and Joseph Encetti (ph) in some way responsible.

However, that being said, I think that the industry seems to be woefully under-regulated, that there does not seem to be enough oversight to prevent this from happening, and it's my hope that in some way as this comes to light, people will see the necessity for more stringent regulations and laws.

ZAHN: What would be your message to the alleged body snatchers that carved up your father's body and sold those parts for profit?

COOKE KETTREDGE: I think you have to look at that from two perspectives, from the perspective of the recipients of the erroneous tissue and body parts. I would say to Mr. Michael Mastromarino, I would wonder how he would feel if he found that his health was severely compromised as a byproduct of someone else's greed, and I would ask him also how he would feel if someone chopped up his mother.

ZAHN: What were your father's expressed wishes for what he wanted to have happen to his body upon his death?

COOKE KETTREDGE: He wanted to be cremated.

ZAHN: And how do you think he would react to what has happened here?

COOKE KETTREDGE: He would be horrified. He would be completely -- his skin would crawl. He had a very weak stomach and it would make him sick.

ZAHN: Well, Susan, I know this hasn't been easy for you to talk about this. We appreciate you joining us to tell us what you've been through, and we'll be watching to see what happens as a result of what you've been through. Thanks.

COOKE KETTREDGE: Thank you very much.


MANN: Susan Cooke Kettredge, speaking about her father, Alistair Cooke, with Paula Zahn.

The sale of body parts has generated some grisly headlines in New York and abroad. Coming up, we'll talk to a journalist that helped expose the black market.

Stay with us.


MANN: Transplants are a relatively common medical procedure. The donors are generally in a hospital setting, often gravely ill or very recently deceased. Their organs need to be removed quickly. But it's medically possible for bones and other tissue to be harvested up to 24 hours after death.

Welcome back.

It's not something we like to think about, but we probably should. The tissue from one person can help dozens of others. Transplants from the dead, if carried out ethically, are a life-altering and life-giving gift. Why should it be any other way?

Joining us now to talk about the fact that it has become something else is William Sherman, Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the "New York Daily News."

Thanks so much for being with us.

Let me ask you first of all, how was this whole scheme discovered?

WILLIAM SHERMAN, "NEW YORK DAILY NEWS": It was discovered when two people bought a funeral home in Brooklyn and discovered that the previous owners had been running this game, not just there but in other funeral homes around the city.

They found it when one of the new owners was walking through the home and accidentally brushed her hand against a corpse's leg and felt the plumber's PVC pipe as opposed to a leg, and there you have it.

MANN: There were a number of homes involved, any number of bodies passing through those homes on any given day. How much money did this generate?

SHERMAN: Well, it generated hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars. One particular piece of information that wasn't mentioned earlier, and that is that Mastromarino routinely paid funeral home directors and owners around the city and in several other states $1,000 per corpse cash money for the bodies that they provided him.

MANN: Now, the astonishing thing in all of this is, of course, the transplanted organs and tissues are supposed to be free, but they're charging a lot for them.

SHERMAN: Yes, they are. I mean, there is money being siphoned out through the whole production line, if you want to call it that, and as it was noted earlier, a corpse is worth more than $150,000 when sold piecemeal out in the retail market.

Naselli (ph) typically, and Mastromarino, typically made a minimum, a bare minimum of $7,000 per body and that fee went up beyond $20,000 when skin and cardiac valves were sold as well as the bones.

MANN: Now you and others are using their names very freely. They haven't been charged. Why not?

SHERMAN: They will be charged. Indictments are expected in the next six to eight weeks, and I don't think their names are being bandied about loosely. The fact of the matter is that I interviewed several people, Susan Cooke Kettredge among them, who were presented with the donor forms and the signatures were obviously not theirs.

MANN: That is also the stunning thing. $150,000 presumably can be made on the basis of one body and one piece of paper, that consent form.


MANN: Does it work on trust after that? If someone can generate a piece of paper with what looks like a signature, does the rest of the process unfold basically on trust that that piece of paper is real?

SHERMAN: It does unfold on trust, and Mastromarino's operation was not limited just to New York but it was in Pennsylvania, Florida, New Jersey. He had a satellite office in Canada, and hundreds and hundreds of people, not just in the United States and Canada but also Europe as well, received body parts from the corpses that he and his partners allegedly harvested illicitly.

MANN: A crime this lucrative that could go on with so little oversight isn't probably just happening once in isolation, is it? It would seem that this could be happening a lot of places.

SHERMAN: Well, when one knows that the retail price, for example, of a digit, of a finger, is $15 and sexual organs go for $115 to $125 each, without respect to gender, by the way; brains go for about $600; depending on the quality and size of bone, example, a lower jaw bone alone can go for about $3,500.

So there is a tremendous amount of money to be made there, and the theory behind the scam, if you will, is that -- by the perpetrators -- is that, well, where is the victim? The person is already dead. But then the other question, of course, is what about the next of kin. But the biggest question is were these parts tested on a quality basis, and they were not.

And we all should know that two-and-a-half years ago, a 22-year-old man in Minnesota received a ligament transplant. The guy was absolutely 100 percent healthy. He had a torn anterior cruciate ligament commonly known as the ACL. And two-and-a-half weeks later, he was dead, and it took them a week-and-a-half to figure out why. And he had died from a very rare bacterium that he had contracted from the transplant. And 22 people in Oregon that same year came down with hepatitis C.

The impact of getting a transplant of material that is diseased can cause death. So you've got two -- to say it loosely -- problems there. One is the desecration of a corpse. And the second, what happens to people that receive the material when it has not been properly tested and screened.

MANN: William Sherman of the "Daily News," thank you so much for talking with us.

SHERMAN: Thank you.

MANN: That's INSIGHT. I'm Jonathan Mann. The news continues.



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