I-TEAM: “I go to bed at night praying I don’t wake up and think about it. And it’s the first thing I think about,” said a tearful Karen Delre, describing the horror she cannot erase from her mind.
“My nightmares consist of my father calling me, begging for my help,” this heartbroken daughter shared with Chief I-Team Investigator Michele Gillen.
Delre was devoted to her dad. She would have done anything to honor him in life and death. Never would she have imagined this cruelest twist of fate.
“He was just cruelly, with a saw and blades, he was just skinned and everything was ripped from him. Which means everything was ripped from me,” Del Re explained.
A decorated Korean War veteran, as James Thornton neared death he reminded his daughter of his one fear – knives- and he asked her to be sure …that under no circumstance should he be autopsied.
“Throughout his life would not even have a pocket knife. I mean he just didn’t like knives. He didn’t want an autopsy because he didn’t want any one cutting him.”
When he died, she followed all his wishes, so she thought. including carrying his ashes to a Florida cemetery. She had peace of mind until she got a visit from New York police a year later.
She remembers their exact words.
“Someone stole your Dad’s body parts and sold them and they made up a medical record,” she was told.
They showed her paperwork indicating that a relative named Victor Thornton confirmed over the phone that her dad was an organ donor. Which he was not.
Who is Victor Thornton?
“Its a made up name,” Delre said. In fact, the I-team investigation finds it was one of thousands of lies that served as the glue to a multi-million dollar scheme.
Stolen bones, cartilage and tissue. At the heart of this story is greed and how it robbed the dignity of the dead and put at risk the health of the living.
“You had over 8,000 individuals in the United States that received stolen body parts in their bodies. Because none of it was consented to by the family members,” said attorney Kevin Dean, who represents dozens of families that are suing the Florida based company RTI, located in Alachua.
It is a major processor of human tissue distributed around the world. It’s one of several companies that claim they unknowingly purchased and processed stolen tissue, bones and other cadaver parts harvested from hundreds of people between 2002 and 2005.
To unravel the scheme New York authorities had bodies exhumed and X-rayed like these revealed a dark secret of what took place in funeral homes in the middle of the night.
“They would go to carving up the bodies. And they would cut off or saw off the arms and then they would take PVC pipe that they brought with them and simply put the PVC pipe back in with some pins,” said Dean.
The man behind the scheme? Authorities say his name is Michael Mastromarino. a former New York oral surgeon who surrendered his dental license after becoming addicted to prescription drugs, he opened up a tissue recovery service in the northeast.
Along with a cadre of funeral home directors and embalmers, they ruthlessly harvested tissue and bones, much of it sent to RTI. They ultimately were sent to prison, along with Mastromarino, who was sentenced to up to 54 years behind bars.
According to court documents, phony death certificates were submitted to RTI including for Karen’s father.
A spokeswoman for RTI said company officials have turned down our requests for on camera interviews, citing pending litigation.
Meanwhile, a daughter said she wants to sound an alert in memory of her dad.
“He was betrayed by the system and by greed,” she said. “And I am going to make sure that I am going to try my best to make sure that no other family feels like my family does and so many other families.”