A cardboard box of ashes came in the mail.
For more than 50 years Alistair Cooke lived in a rent controlled apartment in Manhattan, easily outliving several property owners and all fellow tenants. The joys of rent control were offset in 2004 by the theft of his bones.
“I’m most shocked... that my stepfather’s ancient and cancerous bones should have been passed off as healthy tissue to innocent patients.”
— Stepdaughter Holly Rumbold
An investigation revealed that the body was dissected before being cremated and an undetermined number of his bones sold for reconstructive surgery. The Masterpiece Theatre host, who was also known in his native Britain for his long-running Letter from America on the BBC, was among dozens of victims whose body parts were harvested at one or more New York funeral homes without the permission of next of kin, according to the NYPD. While Mr. Cooke’s cause of death was officially listed as lung cancer, the disease had spread to his bones by the time he died on March 30, 2004. “I was very upset and I consign these guys to hell,” said David Grossberg, the Cooke family lawyer.
Susan Kittredge, the broadcaster’s daughter, told the New York Daily News her father’s bones could have been used for any one of several orthopedic procedures, or transformed into dental implants.
The use of bones from people of Mr. Cooke’s age is discouraged, and offering cancerous bone for medical procedures violates U.S. Food & Drug Administration regulations. The police probe is looking into what happened to more than 1,000 corpses. At least one exhumation has taken place—that of an 82-year-old man who died in 2003—to determine whether his remains were complete at the time of his burial. Mr. Cooke’s body was picked up from his home on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue by New York Mortuary Services, which has also become part of the police probe, run by detectives of the Major Case Squad. The funeral home returned what Ms. Kittredge assumed were her father’s ashes a few days later. Detectives determined from the home’s records that the person listed as having authorized the donation of Mr. Cooke’s bones did not exist. Three days later, as promised, Susan received a cardboard box of ashes by mail.
...they took only the legs, sawing them off just below the hip and just above the foot. Cremations were another matter, the only time they went whole hog.”
The family was also concerned for people who may have received treatments using Mr. Cooke’s potentially cancerous bones: “That people in need of healing should have received his body parts, considering his age and the state of his health.” The legitimate market for body parts generates about $600-million a year in the United States. Police launched their investigation into illegal body parts sales after funeral director Roberts Nelms bought a funeral home from rival Joseph Nicelli, then blew the whistle when he discovered evidence cadavers had been dissected. Police now believe Mr. Nicelli, 49, was part of a larger ring led by Michael Mastromarino, a former dentist who ran a highly profitable tissue-recovery company called Biomedical Tissue Services Inc. It is alleged Mr. Mastromarino sold Mr. Cooke’s bones for US$7,000 to medical transplant material companies in Florida and New Jersey.
Biomedical Tissue Services, set up in 2001, also traded in skin and heart valves. Experts say a single corpse dissected into parts usable for transplants or for transplant material is worth about $100,000. Mr. Mastromarino gave up his dentist’s license in 2000 after he was arrested on drug possession and usage charges. Mr. Cooke died just weeks after his last Letter from America broadcast. The series provided 15-minute accounts of the latest goings-on in the United States and were once listened to by millions of Britons. Listen or download Letter from America at the BBC podcasts website.
Mastromarino found several buyers for his cadaveric contraband, among them a highly profitable biotech firm known as LifeCell. The New Jersey-based corporation ranked 16 on Fortune’s list of fastest growing businesses in 2006, and with good reason: Its stock shot up 28 percent that year.
The company owes much of the success to its flagship skin graft, AlloDerm. “AlloDerm is a miraculous substance,” says Maryland plastic surgeon Mark Richards, “given its universal acceptance into the human body.” Doctors have found that human bodies are far less likely to reject AlloDerm than previous skin substitutes. The graft melts into human flesh because it is derived from human flesh, the stripped-down product of bodies pulled apart after death. Surgeons use AlloDerm for all manner of life-enhancing procedures, from reconstructive breast surgery to hernia repair, as well as some perhaps less urgent operations.
AlloDerm injections are a leading method of lip enhancement, an increasingly popular procedure among women. And the miracle substance is not without cosmetic benefit for men. “Some surgeons promote its use and employ it regularly for penis enlargement,” says Stephen Giunta, a Virginia surgeon specializing in phalloplasty, “even though the manufacturer advises them not to do so.”
In 1604 King James made it a felony to steal a corpse for witchcraft. But grave robbers could still sell bodies for medical purposes and the grim business reached a peak in the early 1800s.
The crime became so prevalent that relatives and friends of a deceased person would watch the grave for some time after the burial to make sure the plot was not violated. Notorious body snatchers William Burke and William Hare began murdering people in Edinburgh in the 1820s in order to sell “fresher” bodies for a larger profit. The pair were caught in 1828. Hare was acquitted of all charges after giving evidence against his partner. Burke was hanged on January 28, 1829. In an ironic twist, his body was donated for medical research. His skeleton is still on display at the city’s University Medical School.
At the time of Burke and Hare, medical schools were allowed four corpses per year from the gallows but this was often insufficient and students were sometimes required to supply their own cadavers. To avoid the risk of arrest, they often paid “resurrection men” to do the dirty work.
In 1978, Charlie Chaplin’s corpse was stolen from Corsier-Sur-Vevey Cemetery in Switzerland. A small group of Polish and Bulgarian mechanics took his body in an attempt to extort money from his family’s £12 million inheritance. The plot failed and the corpse was recovered eleven weeks later near Lake Geneva. His body was reburied under two meters of concrete to prevent further attempts.
In October 2004, animal rights activists stole body parts from the grave of Gladys Hammond whose family bred guinea pigs for medical research. Three people were later convicted over the crime.
It’s hard to get away from the Brooklyn House of Detention. Buddy Jacobson did it, by swapping clothes with his lawyer. But that’s another story. Michael Mastromarino, the boss of the body-snatching ring that stole Cooke’s bones, will serve a minimum of 18 years in prison under a plea deal enforced by a Brooklyn judge in 2008. Mastromarino had previously agreed to the deal, but prosecutors then attempted to scrap the agreement.
Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Albert Tomei slammed the Brooklyn district attorney’s office for its failed attempt to renege on the deal and force a trial. “It is unlikely Mr. Mastromarino will ever see the light of day,” said Tomei. A spokesman for the Brooklyn district attorney’s office defended the attempt to back out of the deal, saying: “With the abundance of evidence and the number of victims that were violated, and with their families expressing their preference for a trial, we thought justice and the public would be better served if we went to trial.”