Alistair Cooke's body lay cold in the embalming room of an East Harlem funeral home, suspended in the brief limbo between death and cremation. A "cutter" soon arrived to make a collection. He sliced open Cooke's legs, sawed the bones from the hip, and took them away. The quintessentially British presenter of Masterpiece Theatre and Alistair Cooke's America—the face of genteel, urbane Albion to millions of Americans—was being carved up for parts.
Cooke had died on March 30, 2004, the victim of a cancer that spread from lung to bone. He left behind a 95-year-old disease-ridden corpse. Susan Kittredge, Cooke's daughter, was mindful only of the potentially exorbitant funerary expenses and flipped through the yellow pages in search of a good price. She eventually settled on a funeral home with a $595 cremation fee.
The home, East Harlem's New York Mortuary Service, promised Kittredge a box of ashes but said nothing of its bigger plans for her father, who would not make it to the cremator whole. For a fee, the funeral director gave a New Jersey tissue procurement agency access to Cooke's remains. His bones, worth some $7,000, were prepped for resale, and his records were falsified to alter his age and cause of death. Three days later, as promised, Susan received a cardboard box of ashes by mail.
Alistair Cooke's remains were only the most famous of more than a thousand bodies plundered by Michael Mastromarino, owner of Biomedical Tissue Services (BTS). He had a simple business model: Pay funeral directors for access to bodies and resell bones, heart valves, spines, and other tissues to biotech firms in need of spare parts.
A former dental surgeon, Mastromarino was familiar with the biotech industry and its rising demand for transplantable tissue. While he was a legitimate practitioner, he had co-authored a book about the benefits of replacing old with new, buoyantly titled Smile: How Dental Implants Can Transform Your Life. He stopped transforming lives through maxillofacial surgery six years ago, when his predilection for self-medication led to trouble. He botched a surgery, and the patient charged that he was stoned on Demerol as he did so. He lost the trust of his patients, and then he lost his license. BTS was an attempt at fiscal redemption, and it proved very lucrative.
As the scandal unraveled in 2005, prosecutors revealed that Mastromarino had netted $4.6 million in three years of back-room dissections. He paid undertakers $1,000 a pop for providing access to the dead, paid cutters $300 to $500 for extracting the most marketable parts, and, according to his lawyer, managed to take home up to $7,000 per body. (One of Mastromarino's former employees contends the boss was pulling in double that.) The New York Police Department later interviewed the families of 1,077 people whose bodies were raided for spines, bones, tendons, and other tissues. BTS had cut deals with funeral homes in New York City, Rochester, Philadelphia, and New Jersey.
The company's work was amateurish at best, dangerous at worst. For families who planned an open-casket funeral, BTS cutters would patch up gutted corpses as best they could. Investigators later found legs stuffed with plastic piping of the kind found at hardware stores. An employee said that he had used rolls of socks to the same purpose, and police found surgical gloves sewn up inside hastily repaired remains.
Cooke's bones were sold to Regeneration Technologies, one of the country's largest tissue banks. The company says Cooke's bones were deemed unsuitable for implantation, but it can't say the same for other pieces of tissue it bought from Mastromarino. The tissues BTS distributed ended up everywhere from a woman's neck in Kentucky to a man's jaw in Tampa Bay. Hundreds of people wake up every morning knowing that they are partly composed of stolen body parts.
In February 2005, Mastromarino and three others were indicted on 122 charges, including body stealing and opening graves. The grisly story received perhaps more media attention than any such scandal since a wave of body snatching in the 18th century. A February 2006 Paula Zahn Now segment spun the story into the perfect media narrative, complete with a villain, a celebrity, and a whistleblower. But that telling, and many others, failed to point out that much of Mastromarino's basic business model was perfectly legal, common, and necessary to the biotech industry. If Mastromarino had been smarter, he could have made a fortune off body parts while staying well within the limits of the law.