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A Funeral Home Investigation Considers the Macabre

By MICHAEL BRICK - Published: October 31, 2005

Investigators are pursuing a criminal inquiry involving macabre dealings in mortuaries and unseemly sales of flesh and bone.

Investors in a Brooklyn funeral home have told the police that they suspect an embalmer improperly removed body parts. The embalmer had connections to a dentist whose business, Biomedical Tissue Services of Fort Lee, N.J., sold human tissue to processing companies, a legitimate but poorly understood niche of medical science. The police quietly pursued the investigation for more than a year until it was disclosed in newspapers this month.

Now investigators are following an abundance of leads from people identifying themselves as relatives of victims, a law enforcement official said, adding that no charges had been filed and no grand jury convened. The federal Food and Drug Administration has warned the public that Biomedical Tissue Services may have obtained tissue without getting proper consent from donors or screening the tissue for disease, and that some of that tissue may have been implanted in patients. Law enforcement officials spoke on condition of anonymity because there have been no charges and the investigation is unfinished.

The notion of a clandestine human chop shop has attracted some of the familiar characters of New York scandal. Sanford Rubenstein, the lawyer best known for representing the Rev. Al Sharpton and Abner Louima, went before five television cameras to announce a civil lawsuit on behalf of a man who said that tissue had been taken from his father's body. Mr. Rubenstein said that he was also taking calls from other people who were making similar claims.

The case's origins trace to a complicated disagreement over the sale of a funeral home in Brooklyn.

A couple operating the funeral home approached the police and prosecutors more than a year ago with accusations of fraud, an investigator and the law enforcement official said. An offhand remark developed into an accusation that the embalmer was returning bodies with parts missing, and the embalmer's business connections to the dentist led to questions about the possibility of sales of improperly obtained tissue.

Since the investigation was disclosed in The Daily News on Oct. 7, its twists and turns have given tabloid editors occasion to design headlines with the words "ghouls," "ghoulish" and "harvest" and the phrase "Body-Snatch Probe Widens."

Tales of stolen body parts are timelessly resonant, tied to the sanctity of dying and fear of the unknown. The 1978 movie "Coma," directed by Michael Crichton, told a fictional story of doctors stealing organs from patients. For years, the State Department has sought to dispel rumors of an international trade in baby organs, distributing materials that quote the French folklorist Veronique Campion-Vincent: "The baby-parts story is a new - updated and technologized - version of an immemorial fable."

Two central themes of the New York story have drawn scrutiny in recent years. In 2002, oversight of the funeral industry was much discussed after the discovery of 280 bodies dumped in the woods near a Georgia crematory. And last year, the underground market for body parts was underscored by a scandal at the University of California, Los Angeles, where an employee was accused of conspiring to sell body parts.

Experts say the nature of these fears is evolving as advances in technology make more parts of the body useful and consequently valuable. An area of medical science once mostly limited to whole vital organs like hearts, livers and kidneys has expanded to include muscle, bone, tendon and skin used in therapies and research.

And an aging population with the resources to pay for health care options has increased demand, said Doug Wilson, vice president of LifeNet, a nonprofit organ donation and tissue banking system in Virginia Beach, Va.

"This story has been written with different players - the names are now changed - over the last 10 years," Mr. Wilson said. "There's more use of tissue today because orthopedic and neurosurgery are increasing because baby boomers are getting older. They want to remain active and golf and play tennis and jog five miles and keep their cholesterol levels down."

As the industry has grown, the possibility of infection from diseased tissue has become a concern. A galvanizing case was the death in 2001 of Brian Lykins, 23, who received tainted tissue during knee surgery in Minnesota. In May, the Food and Drug Administration enacted safety standards for tissue processors, governing labeling, packaging and distribution.

That agency is one of several investigating the New York case. Law enforcement officials and representatives of people involved in the inquiry say the case can be traced to the sale of the Daniel George & Son Funeral Home in Bensonhurst. Records in Kings County Supreme Court show that Daniel George Jr. signed an agreement in March 2002 to sell the home to Joseph Nicelli of Staten Island.

Mr. Nicelli was described by a law enforcement official as a trade embalmer with business connections to a dentist, Michael Mastromarino. Mr. Mastromarino's dentistry license was suspended for four years beginning in October 2002, state records show. His business, Biomedical Tissue Services, sells tissue to processing companies, his lawyer said, adding that the business was regulated by state and federal authorities. Processing companies prepare tissue for transplant.

Last year, Mr. George sued Mr. Nicelli, accusing him of failing to make payments on the purchase of the funeral home, and Mr. Nicelli responded that Mr. George had failed to disclose relevant information about the business. The lawsuit also named as a defendant a funeral home company controlled by Robert Nelms and his wife, Debora Johnson. Mr. Nelms, who was operating the Bensonhurst funeral home, said in court papers that although he was renting the property he was not responsible for any of the obligations of the business sale agreement.

Last year, Mr. Nelms and Ms. Johnson approached the police and prosecutors and accused Mr. Nicelli of fraudulent dealings at the funeral home, investigators and their lawyer said. Their first assertion was that customers had tried to redeem prepaid funeral plans for which they could find no records. In questioning, a law enforcement official said, Ms. Johnson mentioned finding bodies where plastic pipe appeared to have been inserted under clothing in place of bones, saying: "There's a lot of funny things going on."

Investigators began seeking to determine whether death records had been altered. The police are interviewing relatives of the deceased, and the Department of Investigation is overseeing a review of records from the medical examiner's office, law enforcement officials said. Investigators are considering exhuming graves for evidence.

Richard Medina, a lawyer for Mr. Nicelli, said that he had not been told his client was a target of any investigation. "Joe's reputation for honesty and decency is unparalleled and pristine," Mr. Medina said.

Mario Gallucci, a lawyer for Mr. Mastromarino, said his client sold tissue obtained with consent.

"It's used by both medical and research companies, and it's perfectly legal to do it," Mr. Gallucci said, adding that his client had been unfairly dragged into a business dispute between Mr. Nicelli and Mr. Nelms and Ms. Johnson.

Eric Franz, a lawyer for Mr. Nelms and Ms. Johnson, said his clients had made a good-faith effort to report a crime.

"Nelms and Johnson have not set anyone up," Mr. Franz said. "All they have done is been candid with the authorities and let them conduct their investigation."

Though no charges have been filed, the case has had an impact on Wall Street. The stock prices of three tissue processing companies named in the newspapers as customers of Biomedical Tissue Services immediately fell, and the companies issued product recalls.