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Body-Part Theft Scandal Ripples in Richmond

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Michael Mastromarino, head of BioMedical Tissue Services, Joseph Nicelli, a funeral home owner, and two others are accused of secretly taking bones and tissues from the recently deceased, then forging consent forms and falsifying medical records in order to sell the parts. Some recipients of the allegedly stolen tissues are now afraid the parts may fail or may contain infectious diseases.

No Virginia funeral homes or tissue banks have been found to be involved in the alleged scheme, according to the Kings County District Attorney's Office. But some of them are concerned about the impact of the widely publicized crimes on both funeral homes and tissue donation.

Susan Motley, executive director of the Virginia Funeral Directors Association, says funeral directors are "horrified" by the crimes and worry about repercussions for the profession. After the New York accusations came to light, the association called an emergency meeting of its bylaws and ethics committee, Motley says. "We wanted to make sure that [the rules] would cover such an egregious violation of the law," she says.

Funeral directors, she says, are not allowed to be involved in tissue donation, including the consent process and the recovery of tissues. "It is only a matter of time before families walk into funeral homes and start asking these questions" about tissue recovery, Motley predicts. She wants funeral directors to be able to reassure people that nothing like the New York scandal would ever occur in Virginia.

"Nothing like that has ever happened here," says Dena Reynolds, spokeswoman for LifeNet, Virginia's primary organ and tissue procurement organization.

With the consent of the donor or his or her family, LifeNet collects such things as heart valves, skin, ligaments and bone for transplant. Just one person's tissues can improve the lives of as many as 50 people, Reynolds says.

But LifeNet worries that the publicity surrounding the New York body-snatching case will deter people from donating their tissues, Reynolds says: "That's our biggest fear."

That fear may be founded. Of the 1880 body-snatching incident, city historian W. Asbury Christian wrote that "some people were even afraid to die for fear the body-snatchers would get them; at least they desired to postpone it until the business was broken up." S

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