Judge to let body parts boss take deal

February 27, 2008 8:36:28 PM PST
A man accused of plundering dead bodies and selling their parts to tissue companies for transplants will plead guilty after a judge rebuked prosecutors Wednesday and refused to let them renege on a deal they reached with him weeks ago. The judge's order means Michael Mastromarino, 44, will go to prison for a minimum of 18 years and up to 54 years for his ghoulish crimes - possibly putting him behind bars for the rest of his life.

"Mr. Mastromarino may never see the light of day," said Brooklyn Judge Albert Tomei, whose words brought Mastromarino's mother to tears.

Prosecutor Monique Ferrell said there had been a "change in circumstance" and a trial was needed to reveal the full "scope of harm he caused." She said it was only in the last year that prosecutors had become fully aware of his activities.

In a statement e-mailed after the hearing, a spokesman for the Brooklyn district attorney's office provided a clearer explanation of why the prosecutors sought a trial.

"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," the statement said.

Mastromarino's lawyer, Mario Galluci, called the prosecution's arguments "ridiculous."

A stern Tomei didn't buy the prosecutions claims, either, saying he would honor the plea agreement that Mastromarino had made with prosecutors - one in which he had participated.

He called the prosecution's reasons "specious" and said they had "no substance."

"I'm not here to have show trials," he said.

Tomei added that prosecutors can't pull a plea agreement without a valid a reason. Doing so would harm the judicial system, he said, citing case law.

There will be at least one trial for prosecutors, however. Chris Aldorasi, who was implicated in cutting up the bodies but has denied wrongdoing, has refused to plead guilty and take any offer that includes time behind bars.

Aldorasi will face trial beginning Monday when Mastromarino enters his plea.

Mastromarino and Aldorasi, both in court Wednesday, face charges of enterprise corruption, body stealing, opening graves, unlawful dissection and forgery.

Also charged in the scheme, which Mastromarino is accused of masterminding, were a Brooklyn mortician named Joseph Nicelli and another cutter, Lee Cruceta.

Cruceta has pleaded guilty and will testify against Aldorasi. Mastromarino will not testify against Aldorasi, his lawyer said.

Nicelli, who's recovering from a head injury, has been removed from the case until he recovers. He has been granted a separate trial.

Mastromarino's plea will at least bring part of this scandal to an end.

The story broke two years, when Mastromarino, then owner of Biomedical Tissue Services, was accused of furtively hacking up corpses, including that of "Masterpiece Theatre" host Alistair Cooke, from funeral homes in the Northeast. The body parts were sent to the processors, who paid thousands of dollars for them and have denied any wrongdoing in the case.

BTS shipped the bone, skin and tendons to Regeneration Technologies Inc., LifeCell Corp. and Tutogen Medical Inc., all publicly traded companies, and to two nonprofits, Lost Mountain Tissue Bank and the Blood and Tissue Center of Central Texas. (Regeneration recently acquired Tutogen; their new name is RTI Biologics Inc.)

Those companies face about 900 civil lawsuits from people who received the tissue in transplants and the families of loved ones who had their body parts taken without permission.

It's not clear why those lawsuits would have any bearing on the prosecution's decision to pull the Mastromarino plea. But the issue was raised by the prosecution during this latest hearing, muddling an already complicated case.

Mastromarino's guilty plea could play a role in those civil cases. Galluci said there's nothing preventing him from being deposed in those cases after his guilty plea.

Mastromarino has already cooperated with prosecutors, telling them about the tissue processors, including Regeneration, which bought the bulk of the parts.

Larry Cohan, a Philadelphia lawyer with Anapol Schwartz, who along with the Motley Rice law firm in South Carolina represents more than 800 people in those civil lawsuits, said he would seek to depose Mastromarino immediately.

A federal judge "has ordered limited discovery on what the processors knew or should have known about Mastromarino's conduct," Cohan said. "His testimony will be directly related to that discovery. And we will seek to obtain it as soon as possible."