The grisly story of the US oral surgeon-turned-mortician who plundered corpses and made millions by selling body parts is winding to a close.
Michael Mastromarino, 44, was arrested nearly two years ago, and this month he is to plead guilty, it has been announced.
Mastromarino and two of his associates were charged in 2006 with enterprise corruption, body stealing, opening graves, unlawful dissection and forgery.
Authorities released photos of exhumed corpses that were boned below the waist. They said the defendants had made a crude attempt to cover their tracks by sewing PVC pipe back into the bodies in time for open-casket wakes.
The former dentist went to funeral homes and extracted bone, tendons and skin from corpses without the consent of relatives. Later his Biomedical Tissue Services (BTS) shipped coolers full of tissue to hospitals for surgeries. About 10,000 people received tissue supplied by BTS, it has been estimated.
A dead body can be worth tens of thousands of dollars when it is dissected for parts.
Hundreds of very live Americans are walking around with pieces of the wrong dead people inside of them - that was a remarkably graphic, almost stomach-churning, comment from the Washington Post last year.
Mastromarino's has been an extraordinarily colourful story, or sickening, as you please.
He had earned degrees in dentistry and dental surgery from New York University.
By the late 1990s, he had practices in midtown Manhattan, New York and New Jersey. He went on to co-author a book, "Smile: How Dental Implants Can Transform Your Life"; the blurb on the inside cover said he traveled the country, lecturing about bone grafting techniques for implants.
John Pipolo — a dental technician who worked side-by-side with Mastromarino until 1999 and co-authored "Smile" — described him as "the Mickey Mantle of oral surgeons" for his willingness to "do surgeries other doctors wouldn't dare attempt."
But then his drug addiction proved his undoing, at that stage, that is. He was arrested in July 2000 in New Jersey for drug possession and being under the influence of a controlled substance. One of his patients accused Mastromarino of deserting him mid-operation.
He was found, according to the lawsuit, in his bathroom with a hypodermic needle stuck in his arm, blood on the floor. Mastromarino surrendered his dental license, went into rehab but branched off into the tissue recovery business on discharge.
He had used bone implants extensively in his oral surgery and had done research on the topic, his lawyers said. So that came in handy in the next phase.
Using his contacts with companies that produced material for dental implants, Mastromarino opened the Biomedical Tissue Services in Fort Lee, New Jersey in 2001 . The next year he sought licensing to do business in New York and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave its nod, without asking too many questions.
And the booming industry was in constant need of new sources of raw material: Between 1994 and 2003, the number of bones grafts distributed for implantation grew six-fold, to 1.3 million, said P. Robert Rigney, Jr., chief executive of the American Association of Tissue Banks.
The body parts, though no longer of any value to their owners, became big business for Mastromarino. His lawyer said he was among the first in the industry to figure out that one way to meet the high demand for donated human tissue — traditionally procured in the controlled environment of hospitals — was to turn to funeral homes.
Deals were cut with funeral directors in New York City, Rochester, New York, Philadelphia and New Jersey: BTS would pay a $1,000 "facility fee" to harvest body parts on their premises. For dental implants, hip replacements and the like one could confidently turn to BTS.
As early as September 2003, the FDA detected trouble.
In a routine inspection, an investigator found evidence the company had failed to properly sterilize its equipment, and had no records of how it had disposed of tissue that failed screening for HIV, hepatitis and syphilis.
But nothing came of it. The FDA backed off after Mastromarino insisted he had voluntarily cleaned up his operation. In a letter, he told officials he would "look forward to your agency revisiting our facility."
Meanwhile, money rolled in. Processors who bought from Mastromarino — one body could bring the company $7,000 — were more interested in his ability to meet demand than in the man himself.
"We had very little contact with him," said Marshall Cothran, chief executive of Central Texas Regional Blood and Tissue Center.
But the saga unraveled in late 2005 and the FDA finally shut down BTS amid its own investigation. The agency said it had uncovered evidence the firm failed to screen for contaminated tissue.
The scandal raised questions about the safety and proper supervision of a billion-dollar-a-year industry that supplied skin and tissue for 1 million tissue transplants each year. But patients are most confounded by the skin-crawling fact that no one knows from whom the bone and tissue was harvested.
Heather Augustin, 42, who had two disks in her neck removed last year, supposedly replaced with bone taken from a youngish corpse, was horrified to learn three months later that her new neck bone had in fact come from rogue funeral homes, likely from the cadaver of a very old person.
"You think, 'I'm carrying a bone in my neck from someone who didn't want to get chopped up,' " she said. "I'm, like, in total shock. What am I supposed to do with these thoughts?"
Mastromarino, who is behind bars, could go on trial as early as next month. His lawyer said instead he would enter the guilty plea Jan. 22 and face 18 to 54 years in prison.