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I-Team: Stealing From The Dead

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When body parts are donated, sometimes more gets taken than expected (Source: CBS4)

When body parts are donated, sometimes more gets taken than expected (Source: CBS4)

Michele-Gillen-600x450 Michele Gillen
Michele Gillen is chief investigative reporter at WFOR-TV, Mi...
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“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.”

It is a horror, Karen Delre, a devoted daughter, cannot erase from her mind.

“He was just cruelly – with a saw and blades – skinned and everything was ripped from him, which means everything was ripped from me,” Delre emotionally recalled, speaking of her father. A Korean war veteran, as James Thornton neared death, he had reminded his daughter of his one fear – knives. Under no circumstance should he be autopsied.

“Throughout his life he wouldn’t even have a pocket knife. I mean he just didn’t like knives, he did not want an autopsy because he did not want anyone cutting him.,” Delre shared with Chief I-Team Investigator Michele Gillen.

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.

“That someone stole your dad’s body parts and sold them,and made up a medical record” Delre told Gillen as they walked the cemetery.

Stolen bones, cartilage and tissue. At the heart of this I-Team investigation is greed and how it robbed the dead of dignity 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,” says attorney Kevin Dean who represents dozens of families suing RTI donor services and RTI Biologics based in Alachua, Florida, a major processor of human tissue that is used by dentists and doctors around the world. It is one of several companies that claim they unknowingly processed stolen tissue, bones and other cadaver parts harvested from hundreds of people between 2202 and 2005. To unravel the scheme, New York authorities exhumed bodies and X-rays 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 saw off the legs at the hip and then they would take PVC pipe that they brought with them, and simply put the PVC pipe back in with some pins,” recounted Dean. Crude pipes, newspapers, even garbage was used to stuff bodies so that relatives did not suspect body parts had been stolen,

The man law enforcement says was  behind the scheme was Michael Mastromarino, a former New York oral surgeon who had surrendered his dental license after becoming drug addicted. He then opened up shop as a tissue recovery service, illegally harvesting tissue and bones with a  cadre of funeral directors and embalmers who ultimately were sent to prison, along with Mastromarino. He was sentenced to serve up to 54 years behind bars for stealing from the dead.

“What he did was a criminal act by desecrating the human remains of hundreds of family members,” says Dean.

Court documents show that in case after case , including for Karen’s father, Mastermarino and his crew fabricated donor consent and submitted phony death certificates to RTI.

Delre and dozens of other family members are suing RTI. The company has turned down our requests for interviews citing the pending litigation.

“I was in shock,”  recalls Stephanie Berardini, a Denver wife and mother. Stephanie Berardini found herself on the receiving end of  the stolen body part nightmare.

Ultimately, the FDA recalled 1,000’s of pieces of the donor tissue and bone processed by RTI – a recall that did not come soon enough for her. She was alerted through a letter from her periodontist that she may have been exposed to an infectious agent during gum surgery, in which bone – processed by RTI- was used.

“I’m happily married, raising children, and now all of a sudden I am going in to be tested for syphilis and AIDS. I was devastated,” says Berardini. ” I was afraid to kiss my child good night.”

Fortunately, Berardini  tested negative for any infectious disease.. She and 100’s of other recipients sued RTI and can not discuss the outcome of their case.

But her scare led us to try to find out how often donated tissue and bone results in infection. How big is the risk?

“We can’t answer that question.We know that there are risks. We don’t know the level of risk because we don’t have a surveillance system to track problems with tissue.”

Dr. Matthew Kuehnert, is Director of the Office of Blood, Organs and Tissue Safety at the CDC, where there is concern over the burgeoning business of tissue harvesting – legal and illegal and the vulnerability of the current system. If a patient gets sick from suspect tissue or bone, there is a good chance it will go unreported by doctors and hospitals.

“They are not required to report to the CDC. They are not required to report to anyone. That is a big problem,” he told Gillen.

A big problem in a big industry, you might not even realize you are contributing to.

The I-Team found that many organ donors do not realize that when they agree to be an organ donor, for example at the Florida Driver’s License Bureau, they are automatically consenting to also be a tissue donor. That means that their tissues, muscles, skin and bones can be harvested. The demand for it is huge and so is the business.

All the more reason Kuehnert says tissue donation needs to be treated as carefully as blood donation but that the funds are not there to make it such a priority.

“When a tissue is recovered from a donor to where it’s implanted into the recipient there needs to be tracking at every stop and that is not happening now,” says Kuehnert.

Fueling a fight for one daughter, who says she is looking for change on behalf a father.

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