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MORE THAN 30 bodies will have to be exhumed in an expanding probe into the trafficking of bones and tissue illegally harvested from corpses in funeral homes throughout the city, the Daily News has learned.
The exhumation will be done to determine how bodies were carved up, without relatives' permission, by a team of alleged body snatchers who sold body parts into the lucrative market for transplants.
Those transplants include bones for dental implants and orthopedic procedures; ligaments and tendons for those with tears, and skin and fatty tissue for burn victims and cosmetic procedures.
The exhumation also is expected to resolve allegations that the traffickers forged documents on corpses' medical condition and cause of death.
It is alleged that the traffickers' forgery was designed to make their product acceptable to tissue processing companies that finally prepare material for transplantation into the living.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations require full documentation on corpses used for transplant material in order to prevent the transmission into the living of tissue contaminated by disease, including HIV and hepatitis.
The FDA also is investigating body parts trafficking in New York City.
The gruesome allegations were first disclosed by The News on Friday.
The Brooklyn district attorney's probe centers around a Fort Lee, N.J., company, Biomedical Tissues Services Ltd., and funeral homes in the city.
The company is run by Michael Mastromarino, who personally performed the harvesting procedures on corpses.
His former partner, Joseph Nicelli, a former funeral home owner, is also under investigation, according to sources.
After Mastromarino surgically removed bone and tissue, the corpses were roughly sewn up with plumber's PVC pipe, inserted to fill out clothed bodies in open coffins, sources said.
No such efforts were taken in cases of cremation under investigation.
Jerry Schmetterer, a spokesman for the Brooklyn district attorney's office, declined comment.
Julie Zawisza, an FDA spokesperson, confirmed her agency's probe, and it was also learned that the NYPD's major case squad has launched a separate investigation into the trafficking allegations.
Many of the corpses were dissected at the Daniel George and Son funeral home, 1852 Bath Ave., Brooklyn. Nicelli owned the home until about 18 months ago.
The body parts probe began after Nicelli sold Daniel George & Son to Robert Nelms and Debora Johnson, a now estranged couple, who own a chain of funeral homes.
Johnson and Nelms became suspicious about Mastromarino's operation and reported it and other problems at the Daniel George home to authorities.
Since then, Johnson and Nelms have "turned over cartons of documents to the DA's office," according to their lawyer, Eric Franz of Manhattan.
"Nelms and Johnson had nothing to do with any illegal operation by Biomedical Tissues," Franz added. "They are cooperating with the DA's office, and they are not involved in any criminal activity."
Nelms, who also is chairman of the Waitt-Nelms funeral home in Morganville, N.J., declined comment.
The Daniel George home, purchased by Nelms and Johnson for $1.5 million, is now closed.
Meanwhile, executives of two of the tissue processing companies that bought body parts from Mastromarino's company for eventual transplantation into the living said that so far, recipients have not experienced any adverse reactions.
The companies are able to track which recipients received material from Biomedical Tissue Services.
The two companies are cooperating with the investigation.
"In light of these events, we have suspended our relationship with Mastromarino and Biomedical Tissue Services," George Lombardi, chief financial officer of Tutogen Medical Inc., of West Paterson, N.J., told The News.
"It should be noted that Biomedical represents a very small percentage of our tissue recovery sources," he said.
Paul Thomas, CEO of LifeCell Corp., another Biomedical customer, said, "No adverse effects have been reported."
LifeCell, a publicly traded company, said that if Biomedical "is unable to resolve questions regarding donor documentation, [LifeCell] will not distribute the BTS inventory."
Regeneration Technologies Inc., another Biomedical customer, is also cooperating with the Brooklyn probe, according to sources.