Earlier this year, the Brooklyn district attorney arrested four men and charged them with swiping, in a frenzy, more than a thousand corpses—including that of “the well-respected host of Masterpiece Theatre, Alistair Cooke”—and dismembering them and parceling them out, with little regard for medical precautions, and possibly infecting with untold diseases the multitudes who received the stolen parts. “It’s the most outrageous thing I’ve seen,” said the D.A., Charles Hynes.
The accused came out in shackles like characters from Dickens. Three of them hung their heads low when passing the cameras, but the fourth, Michael Mastromarino, was a tall, somber figure in a black overcoat who stared directly into the lens, smacking gum. “He knows he’s not Dr. Frankenstein,” said his lawyer, Mario Gallucci. After the men had pleaded not guilty to every macabre charge against them, Gallucci explained that his client’s work had endangered no one and had been only a benefit to public health.
“I don’t think the Brooklyn D.A.’s office understands what the industry is,” Gallucci concluded. And whether that was true or not, the case forced us to look at a world we know little of, brought to the surface everything we’d prefer to keep buried.
The man accused of body stealing lives as other people do, across the bridge in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Mastromarino’s brick house is grand for suburbia, though with the letter M writ large upon the welcome mat and the Lincoln and the Escalade crowded into the oval driveway, not perhaps as grand as he would like. A beware of dog sign adorns the window; when I knock, a middle-aged woman appears behind the glass. “I am not opening that door,” she announces, with arms crossed. Gallucci says that Mastromarino, out on bail, is in there somewhere, “trying to enjoy his family while he has this extra time” away from the office.
Mastromarino was once a prosperous maxillofacial surgeon, with offices in New Jersey and midtown Manhattan. Before making headlines as an abominable ghoul, he was chiefly known as co-author of Smile: How Dental Implants Can Transform Your Life. The book begins by explaining that as our life spans increase our parts wear out and that we’re lucky to be living in a “ ‘new age’ of implantology”: “Just as orthopedists replace hips, knees, shoulders, etc.—dentists replace teeth with implants.” Mastromarino’s principal contribution was the chapter on bone-grafting, which the book says is “a whole new ball game.” Grafting used to be difficult and painful, but according to Smile, “breakthroughs in tissue engineering have come to the rescue,” and today, “we can literally put bone wherever we need it.”
Co-author Michael Wiland wouldn’t say Mastromarino was the best in the country at this work, “but he was a very competent young doctor. You know, until he wasn’t.”
The fall started with a backache and a little Demerol. The doctor was not careful, and by May 2000, according to a malpractice lawsuit later settled out of court, people had begun noticing that he “didn’t look like himself.” He “looked tired,” his accountant testified. A dental assistant noticed he was not as “proficient” as she was used to seeing him. “He appeared just somewhat lost and like he was not feeling well, profusely sweating.”
Before long, the “entire building knew” of Mastromarino’s drug use, said one witness. In surgery, the assistant noticed him asleep, standing over a patient. She tapped his hand, and he finished the job. Another day, he collapsed coming out of the bathroom “with his scrub pants down around his ankles.” In yet another incident, he was found in the bathroom “with a hypodermic needle and blood on the floor,” having left a patient under general anesthesia on the operating-room table.
His assistant was unable to help him when in late June 2000, according to the lawsuit, he damaged Ana Ortiz’s seventh cranial nerve, leaving her with a permanent “left-facial droop.” Ten days later, Mastromarino was arrested in Fort Lee for “possession of Demerol and a hypodermic needle and being under the influence of a controlled dangerous substance.”
This is where the story of a bottom-feeder really begins: at the bottom. Mastromarino had a wife, two sons, a fine house—things worth pulling his life together for. He hired Gallucci to get the drug charges dropped, and he managed to extract himself from the influence of controlled substances. He had surrendered his license to practice dentistry, though, and so he began looking about for a way to survive.
Among his contacts was one of the largest tissue banks in the country, a company that trades on nasdaq under the name RTIX and that manufactures, from a factory in Alachua, Florida, all sorts of useful spare parts, including the “BioSet Demineralized Bone Matrix (DBM),” the “patented MD-Series threaded bone dowels,” “Osteofil/Regenafil injectable bone paste,” as well as a number of “cortical bone pins” and “interference screws.”