NEW YORK - The mastermind of a scheme to plunder corpses from funeral homes in the Northeast and sell them for millions of dollars pleaded guilty yesterday in a deal that could send him to prison for more than five decades.
Michael Mastromarino, a 44-year-old former oral surgeon, confessed to the judge that he carried out the scheme from 2001 to 2005. He will face 18 to 54 years and will have to forfeit $4.68 million. He pleaded guilty to 14 counts that include enterprise corruption, body stealing, and reckless endangerment.
The plea was made more than two years after the gruesome scandal broke, with evidence that corpses were being hacked up without permission or proper screening for diseases and sold for dental implants, knee and hip replacements, and other procedures around the country.
The looted bodies included that of "Masterpiece Theatre" host Alistair Cooke.
Authorities released photos of exhumed corpses that were boned below the waist. Prosecutors said the defendants had made a crude attempt to cover their tracks by sewing PVC pipe into the bodies in time for open-casket wakes.
Dressed in a button-down Ralph Lauren shirt and blue jeans, a bespectacled Mastromarino calmly answered "yes" as prosecutors outlined the gruesome accusations in a nearly hourlong confession.
Mastromarino, smiling and fidgeting at times, admitted to forging records, including the times of death and the ages of the dead, as well as switching blood and tissue samples. Mastromarino said he stole Cooke's body parts. Cooke was one of more than 1,000 victims.
"What he did was wrong," his defense lawyer, Mario Galluci, said outside court. "I feel horrible for the victims in this case. There is no excuse for what he did."
After the hearing ended, Brooklyn prosecutor Josh Hanshaft said Mastromarino "mutilated the bodies for greed."
Mastromarino's wife, Barbra, who will forfeit $190,000 in connection with the case, declined to comment. The two have been married for more than 15 years and have two children. Mastromarino will be sentenced in May.
Mastromarino was the owner of Biomedical Tissue Services, a New Jersey company that shipped bones, skin, and tendons to tissue processors such as
Those companies face hundreds of civil lawsuits from people who received the tissue in transplants and from the families of loved ones whose body parts were taken without permission.
Prosecutors said Mastromarino's actions posed a "grave risk" to transplant recipients and he showed a "depraved indifference" by shipping body parts that came from people with cancer or other diseases.
During a news conference, Galluci said the companies that accepted those parts should be prosecuted. He said they put pressure on his client to get more bodies and didn't ask any questions.
Mastromarino reached the plea deal earlier this year, but it nearly fell apart when prosecutors decided they wanted a trial. A judge nixed that plan, however, and scolded prosecutors for backing out of the deal.
The three others charged in the BTS case were Chris Aldorasi, Joseph Nicelli, and Lee Cruceta. Aldorasi, a cutter, is on trial in Brooklyn. Cruceta has pleaded guilty, and Nicelli, who suffered a head injury, has been removed from the case until he recovers.
The harvesting-tissue operation stretched across four states, including Pennsylvania, and involved about a half-dozen funeral home directors, prosecutors said.
Mastromarino will also plead guilty to related charges in Philadelphia, his lawyer said yesterday.