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The Organ Grinder

In the spring of 2004, Cruceta was with Mastromarino at the AATB spring meeting in Clearwater, Florida, when Aldorasi called from the Harlem funeral home to say that Alistair Cooke was on the table. What should he do? Mastromarino’s answer, according to Cruceta, was “Proceed.”

If it went as most cremations did, Alistair Cooke—with his diseased heart and cancerous bones—was deboned in his arms and legs, with Aldorasi also cutting and handing to the back-table the skin from the chest and back, and maybe some heart valves and veins. The remains of the remains would have been left on the table, while choicer parts went into the freezers at headquarters. Cruceta says they had only two freezers, “so we tried to get everything out as fast as possible.”

Within 48 hours, Kittredge received the “cremains” but did not learn until just before Christmas 2005 that they were rather incomplete. A detective with the Brooklyn D.A.’s office called to say there was evidence Alistair Cooke had been stolen. By any chance, was this the Alistair Cooke? he wanted to know. “I told him yes,” Kittredge later wrote in the Times. “He whistled through his teeth.” She hung up and “stared, slack-jawed, into space.”

Mastromarino’s second fall was set in motion when Nicelli sold the Daniel George, and the new owners ushered the cops into the secret room of horrors. The cops were stunned by the hydraulic table and the trap door, by “the shocking fact that bones had been removed and replaced with crude plastic pipes.” These were only the standard practices of funeral homes and tissue-banking, but they appeared so suspicious to assistant D.A. Josh Hanshaft that he kept digging until at last, sorting papers “right here at my desk,” he says, he found the crime—forgery!

On top of ignoring other standards, Mastromarino’s company had, it seemed, completely bypassed the hurdle of consent. In all but one of 1,077 cases, the D.A.’s office charges, they simply took without asking. Death certificates, medical-history forms, consent papers—all of it had been forged, making the dead appear willfully donated and, as Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said, “younger and healthier on paper.” Thus, it was not Susan Kittredge of Vermont who gave Alistair Cooke over to the knives but a fictitious Susan Quint of the Bronx. His invigorating second death had killed him ten years younger than he was before and from a quick and merciful heart attack.

Unleashed upon the world, Cooke and the rest became, in the eyes of the D.A., public-health threat No. 1. Who knew what diseases their parts might carry or how far they might spread? Hynes stood at his press conference beside close-up photos of the exhumed and rotting dead, saying ominously, “God knows what the consequences could be.”

If a viewing was scheduled, they took only the legs, sawing them off just below the hip and just above the foot. Cremations were another matter, the only time they went whole hog.

But the consequences were immediately clear: pure terror. Tabloids shrieking, personal-injury lawyers wailing, the stock of tissue companies falling. With more than a million tissue transplants occurring a year, and the largest number of them bone, people all over the country suddenly feared they had been installed with time bombs that at any moment might doom them. Others worried that their dearly departed had been butchered, and the general public was generally creeped out, if only from the sudden awareness of what happens to the dead behind closed doors.

Gallucci watched as the industry began “running for shelter,” leaving Mastromarino out in the cold. One of Mastromarino’s customers, LifeCell, claimed that its own safeguards had uncovered the scam. The FDA said that its own investigation had “revealed serious and widespread deficiencies” at Mastromarino’s company, and it shut the company down. RTI realized the need to sever ties with Mastromarino and to recall tissue received from him. Even Cruceta, in his attempt to defend himself, abandoned the doctor, claiming to be just the brawn to Mastromarino’s brains, an unwitting pawn in the alleged grave-robbing ring. His lawyer, Joe Tacopina, says of his client, “He’s a genuinely really sweet individual” who “has been demonized because he’s the guy who was cutting off the limbs.”

All of this was quite hard on Mastromarino, according to Gallucci, because he was as shocked as anyone to discover the forgeries. Who could have done it? He didn’t know. (Although Gallucci hints that he expects more indictments in the next few weeks.) But why, asks Gallucci, didn’t the FDA, the New York State Department of Health, RTI, and the others alert the company to this problem during their annual inspections? “All of that was good, and now it’s all bad?” If funeral homes are a less-than-ideal harvesting site, “then why did the FDA say you could do this in a funeral parlor?”