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It took the ghouls 45 minutes to take out the bones, then another 15 minutes for the skin, arms, and belly, according to a key figure in the Brooklyn-based body-snatching case.
As new charges in the gruesome case loom, the Daily News got an unprecedented look at shocking new details.
"We wore surgical gowns and caps," said Lee Cruceta, a "cutter" for the ring allegedly headed by ex-dentist Michael Mastromarino. "We worked on embalming tables; some were stainless steel, others were the old porcelain."
With matter-of-fact detachment, Cruceta noted that he and his fellow ghouls were so busy they often ate lunch or dinner in the dissecting rooms.
They did "six or seven extractions a day," Cruceta told The News in a lengthy interview last week. "It would take 45 minutes to take out the bones, then another 15 minutes for the skin, the upper arm, lower arm, thigh, abdominal area and more," he said.
Body parts were passed to an assistant who "worked the back table," putting them in sterile bags and then coolers for transport.
"Ordinary coolers, with 8 pounds of ice in each," he said.
"The skin would be put in jars. A whole person's skin would fit in two jars about this big, about 16 inches," he said, spreading his hands to indicate the size of the jars.
Spines and large veins were removed. Later, the bodies, particularly those slated for open coffins, were filled with plumbers' PVC pipe and sewn together.
"That would take another hour, and we used Drilock - it's a powder in a sack which expands to 10 times its size inside the body - to pick up excess fluids," Cruceta said.
For Cruceta, 33, the job was a financial windfall.
"I went from earning $50,000 a year as a nurse to making $185,000 a year," he said.
Attorneys for Mastromarino, embalmer Joseph Nicelli, Cruceta and Chris Aldorasi, also a cutter, said they have been notified their clients will be indicted on new charges this week by the Brooklyn district attorney's office.
They were indicted earlier this year on 122 counts of body stealing, grand larceny, forgery, racketeering and other charges.
According to that indictment, more than 1,000 corpses were harvested from area funeral homes without permission from next of kin, and consent forms and medical histories were forged, concealing disease and substance abuse.
The enterprise operated from 2001 until last fall, and allegedly netted more than $5 million.
The accused have given the district attorney's office detailed statements, but none has become a cooperating witness, say their lawyers. Each denies wrongdoing.
"My client is 100% innocent," said Cruceta's attorney, George Vomvolakis. "In retrospect, was my client naive? Yes. Was he dumb? Probably."
The scheme harvested corpses at funeral homes for bones, skin, cardiac valves and other body parts for sale into the burgeoning transplant business. Skin, sold in sheets, went to burn victims. Heart valves, veins and arteries went to cardiac patients. Bone, tendons and ligaments were sold for dental implants and orthopedic procedures.
More than 10,000 people in the U.S., Canada, Britain and other countries received the body parts.
Funeral home directors in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania were paid $1,000 per corpse. The parts from each corpse netted the operation as much as $20,000, according to Cruceta.
"Okay, the bones - tibia, fibia, femur, humerus, radia and ulna [leg and arm bones] - went for $5,000; pelvis, tendons, ligaments, another $5,000; skin, another $5,000, spines, veins, valves, and you're up to $20,000," he said.
"We had refrigerators and two big freezers," at Mastromarino's Biomedical Tissue Services office in Fort Lee, N.J., Cruceta said. "You could fit parts from 10 to 12 bodies in each freezer. Skin cannot be frozen, however."
Cruceta said the funeral homes that provided the bodies may have been complicit.
"Most places we worked, most of the funeral homes were in low-income areas, and I thought the funeral directors gave the families some sort of financial incentive to donate - a discount on cremation or a casket," he said.
Mastromarino maintains he ran a legitimate business and bore no responsibility for consent forms.
In his statement, Nicelli said he had been under pressure from an organized crime figure, but authorities could not substantiate that claim.
"The evidence is clear that Joe had nothing to do with the paperwork," said Richard Medina, Nicelli's attorney.
Aldorasi's lawyer, Robert Koppelman, said his client was "basically a mechanic."
Before the operation ended last year - after exclusive reports in the Daily News - the body parts were sold to five legitimate companies and tissue banks for cleaning and resale to hospitals and other health care providers.