I intended to write a post after seeing Tony Dye’s 2010 documentary “Body Snatchers of New York” a few years ago. Through a series of interviews with law enforcement officials, lawyers, journalists and victims, it tells the story of a sensational case out of Brooklyn in 2006 where a former dentist and his associates operating a company called Biomedical Tissue Services of Fort Lee, New Jersey, conspired with funeral homes to steal human bone and skin from dead bodies. The tissue was then sold to various processing companies to make medical products, including dental implants and spinal disc replacements. These, in turn were sold to hospitals to be transplanted.
In some cases, the families of the deceased individuals were told that their loved ones had been cremated when in truth they had been carved up and skinned. One such body belonged to the late Masterpiece Theater host, Allistair Cooke. Biomedical Tissue Services made as much as $250,000 from processing each body. In addition to lying to families and not receiving consent to distribute tissue and bone from corpses, the company also routinely sold body remnants from dead individuals who had suffered from drug and alcohol addiction, cancer, AIDS, hepatitis, and other diseases that compromised the safety of the tissue without informing their purchasers, tissue recipients or their doctors.
Michael Mastromarino of Fort Lee was the mastermind of the operation. (That’s him above.) He is the “star” of the documentary, speaking from prison where he died (of bone cancer, appropriately) a few years later. The astounding and infuriating aspect of his comments is that he admits taking and chopping up the bodies without the consent of the deceaseds’ families. He admits using forged documents and other fraudulent documentation to distribute the bone and tissue to the processing companies. Nonetheless, he insists that he is a “good person” who just miscalculated somehow. Mastromarino genuinely wants the audience’s sympathy as he laments how his reputation has been destroyed and his family has been shamed—and all because he wanted to help people and do something good for society. In his eyes, he was a tragic figure.
That was really his perspective, and it seems genuine. The companies, he explained, could never get enough of what he offered, and living people, suffering people, were in desperate need. The supply of legally donated bodies didn’t begin to satisfy the demand; he was just providing what society needed and couldn’t get any other way.
Repeatedly, Mastromarino insists he “never hurt anyone.” He replaced bones in cadavers’ legs with plumbing pipe, and performed acts on corpses that gave their families nightmares when they learned about them, but “nobody was hurt.” Besides, living people got bone and tissue they desperately needed and might not have received any other way.
The fact that Mastromarino made a millions from this racket didn’t make him feel like he had done anything wrong: it’s just supply and demand, and he earned his money. That what he sold was often from older people that he represented to the processing companies as being young and healthy, or from people with serious injuries or diseases, he brushed off in the film, denying that it made any difference. The laws, he says, are the problem; they are absurdly restrictive, and make people like him engage in crimes to help people. Mastromarino seems to validate his conduct because the businesses that enables his crimes were “legitimate businesses” and “traded on Wall Street.” They wouldn’t have engage in the bone and tissue harvesting if it was wrong. (This, one of dozens of rationalizations at play here, is Rationalization #14. Self-validating Virtue.)
At one point in the documentary, he breaks down sobbing. Mastromarino really believed that he was a victim, a tragic figure.
It is a clinical study in self-delusion, denial, rationalization-poisoning and malfunctioning ethics alarms
You can view “Body Snatchers of New York” here.