Michael Mastromarino, a former dental surgeon who became a tabloid sensation when he was charged with running a $4.6 million enterprise that plundered tissue and bone from corpses at funeral homes and sold them for transplants and research, died on Sunday at St. Luke's Cornwall Hospital in Newburgh, N.Y. He was 49 and still serving a prison term.
The cause was complications of metastatic liver cancer, Mario Gallucci, Dr. Mastromarino's lawyer, said.
The technology that allows the transplantation of critical organs also enables the far more common transplantation of tissue: bone can be used to repair fractures, veins for heart bypass surgery, and tendons and ligaments can restore mobility. Harvesting organs is allowed in New York State, provided the donor does not carry a potentially communicable disease, the survivors approve and the person is not too old. But there are nowhere near enough willing donors to meet the demand for tissue, so the profit from one body can reach six figures.
Dr. Mastromarino became licensed by New York State to supply tissue banks and manufacturers of biological surgical instruments after his dental license was suspended in 2002 because of a drug addiction. He established a network of undertakers, whom he paid up to $1,000 per corpse, and soon took on assistants and formed a business based in New Jersey, Biomedical Tissue Services. He reportedly made $10,000 to $15,000 per body.
But Dr. Mastromarino harvested organs and tissue from bodies without consent from the survivors, the authorities said, and removed material from people with cancer, H.I.V. and other diseases. He then forged paperwork, including consent forms and death certificates, to make the cause of death and age acceptable.
The police began investigating irregularities at the Daniel George & Son Funeral Home in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, in 2005. News reports included lurid details, like what the police called a secret room in the funeral home equipped with specialized surgical equipment; leg bones replaced by PVC pipe so bodies would appear intact at viewings (this procedure is common in lawful bone removal); and the fact that one of the victims was Alistair Cooke, the British journalist and former host of "Masterpiece Theater," whose arm and leg bones were taken even though he had had cancer.
Dr. Mastromarino was charged in 2006, along with two of his workers and an embalmer. He pleaded guilty in 2008 to numerous charges of enterprise corruption, reckless endangerment and body stealing and was sentenced to 15 to 30 years in prison. He and his wife, Barbara, agreed to pay $4.6 million to the district attorney's office, to be distributed among the victims' relatives.
Michael Mastromarino was born in Brooklyn on Sept. 16, 1963. He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh and the New York University College of Dentistry.
Dr. Mastromarino had surgical offices in New Jersey and Manhattan. He was a co-author, with Michael R. Wiland, of the book "Smile: How Dental Implants Can Transform Your Life." Dr. Mastromarino, who was divorced, is survived by two sons, Michael and Jerry.
As for Mr. Cooke, his daughter, Susan Cooke Kittredge, said in an article in New York magazine that "he would have been just horrified" by the illegal harvesting. But, she said, "at the same time, he would have appreciated the Dickensian nature of it."
New York Times
By DANIEL E. SLOTNIK
JULY 8, 2013
JULY 8, 2013