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Body brokers leave trail of questions, corruption

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Michael Mastromarino

ICIJ

In April 2003, Robert Ambrosino murdered his ex-fiancée — a 22-year-old aspiring actress — by shooting her in the face with a .45-caliber pistol. Then he turned the gun around and killed himself.

Soon after, Ambrosino’s corpse entered the United States’ vast tissue-donation system, his skin, bones and other body parts destined for use in the manufacture of cutting-edge medical products.

But before they entered the system, Michael Mastromarino, owner of a New Jersey-based tissue recovery firm, needed to solve a couple of problems. He didn’t want to have to report that Ambrosino had perished in a murder-suicide. And he didn’t want anyone to know that Ambrosino’s family hadn’t given permission for his body to be used for tissue donation.

Mastromarino solved both problems the same way: He lied.

Mastromarino was the leader of a now-infamous human tissue trafficking ring that fed an international trade in body parts. Along with tissues from Ambrosino’s corpse, he stole parts from grandmothers, electrical engineers, and factory workers, as well as from the remains of famed journalist Alistair Cooke.

The disgraced dental surgeon from Brooklyn supplied the raw material for products used for a host of surgical operations — from knee repair to plastic surgery and cosmetic implants. He was a ground-level player in an industry that makes its profits by harvesting human tissues mostly from the United States, but also from Slovakia, Estonia, Mexico, and other countries around the world. One of Mastromarino's top buyers was Florida-headquartered RTI Biologics, a processor of American, Canadian and Ukrainian body parts that trades among the high-tech companies on the NASDAQ stock exchange.

Years after Mastromarino was sent to prison and the publicity in his case quieted down, his story has been given new life by a lawsuit filed in a Staten Island courthouse. New York Supreme Court Judge Joseph J. Maltese has given the green light for RTI to stand trial Oct. 22 in a civil case that will delve into what the company knew — or should have known — about Mastromarino’s body snatching. 

Read more at ICIJ.org.