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The Organ Grinder

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Regeneration Technologies, Incorporated, is the full and hopeful name: When a part of you dies, you simply grow another part. As an oral surgeon, Mastromarino had used RTI’s products and knew its need for raw materials. Rather quickly, he conceived the notion of working his career in implantology from the opposite direction.

“He contacted RTI and told them that as a surgeon, he could do a better job,” says Gallucci. RTI executives no longer wish to discuss Mastromarino, but according to Gallucci, their response was “Let’s see.” Mastromarino was soon going on trial harvests and returning with “more tissue and better tissue.” The transition from living patients to dead was not difficult for him. And RTI seemed to like what he brought in. “They couldn’t get enough of it!” says Gallucci.

In 2002, the same year he was sanctioned for practicing dentistry with a suspended license, Mastromarino got his tissue-harvesting license from the New York State Department of Health and began working for RTI. And when he announced that he wanted to work out of funeral homes, “they thought that was an outstanding idea,” says Gallucci, and even helped Mastromarino set up a “business model.”

First, the doctor began recruiting undertakers, offering $1,000 a corpse. Then as the work began piling up, Mastromarino sent out word through the medical community that he needed another harvester. In 2003, when Lee Cruceta, a nurse at Beth Israel, spoke to his boss about his need to make more money, the operating-room director knew exactly where to send him.

Cruceta sits slumped in his lawyer’s office, wearing a dark polo shirt and gray slacks, with a beeper at his waist. His face is the vision of gloom, all upturned eyebrows and downturned mouth, but he lights up as he begins recalling his career—the “amazing things” he has seen, sights that “you might think are kind of gruesome” but that to him are “just, uh, very interesting stuff to see.” He speaks of it as old sailors speak of the ocean: what people look like in pieces, what they look like inside. He smiles as he says, “I know what you look like inside.”

As a nurse, he had developed the desire to touch, which had led to an interest in orthopedics. (“Power tools—that’s what’s interesting about orthopedics. Sort of like carpentry for humans.”) At last, he began working as an official AATB-certified tissue-bank specialist, and though he had never worked in funeral homes before, his wife had just lost her job, they had four children to support, and Mastromarino’s offer looked like a good opportunity.

They worked mostly in—“I don’t know how to say this … poor areas”: Harlem, the Bronx, Newark, Philadelphia. Cruceta understood that for allowing the harvest of their loved ones, families were supposed to receive “some sort of financial benefit”—an upgraded casket, a discounted cremation—but whether they ever did, he doesn’t know. Most of the work in the beginning was at Joe Nicelli’s place in Bensonhurst, an imposing gray, windowless box called the Daniel George & Son Funeral Home. The workers would fetch the corpse; Mastromarino would call Cruceta to say that “we have a case, that he died yesterday of cardiac arrest, and you know, the body would be on the table waiting.”

The table was on the first floor and rose hydraulically with corpse and harvester to the second, where, as the police said, there was “a secret room” … “a virtual operating room, complete with the large and very bright overhead lighting associated with hospital surgery.” This was the moment Cruceta had come for: “Patient contact—that was always my thing.” He had tried to get his wife to watch him work, but she “always thought it was a disgusting job.” Only the doctor seemed to understand. “I thought he was a great guy.”

They had a contract to supply RTI with “long bones,” Cruceta says. If a viewing was scheduled, they took only the legs, sawing them off just below the hip and just above the foot. “We took our time to make sure we didn’t nick the skin,” he says. Afterward, Cruceta sprinkled powder over the large cuts, “sewed up whatever we damaged,” and then between hip and foot, screwed in plastic pipe, as per standard industry practice. The police later found surgical gloves and other things sewn up in the bodies as well, but Cruceta vows he never did any such thing. They were always careful, he says, “so the families could at least have a decent funeral.” That was the point of the pipes: With pants to cover where the legs should have been, the bodies looked as good as new during viewings.


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