PHILADELPHIA Two brothers who ran a pair of funeral homes and a crematorium admitted Tuesday that they sold corpses to a company that trafficked stolen body parts, a macabre scheme that left families aghast and unclear about the fate of their loved ones.
Louis and Gerald Garzone pleaded guilty to charges including conspiracy, theft, abusing corpses and welfare fraud.
The gruesome allegations read in court drew gasps, murmurs and tears from about two dozen people who had entrusted the bodies of their loved ones to the Garzones' facilities in Philadelphia.
The brothers allowed at least 244 corpses to be carved up without families' permission and without medical tests, prosecutors said. Skin, bones, tendons and other parts some of them diseased were then sold around the country for dental implants, knee and hip replacements, and other procedures.
Some bodies were only torsos by the time the hacking was done, said Assistant District Attorney Evangelia Manos.
The mastermind of the scheme, Michael Mastromarino, pleaded guilty Friday to hundreds of charges that could send him to prison for life. He is already serving 18 to 54 years for running the scam in New York.
Mastromarino's company, New Jersey-based Biomedical Tissue Services, took bodies from funeral homes in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Among the corpses plundered was that of "Masterpiece Theatre" host Alistair Cooke.
In Philadelphia, Mastromarino paid the Garzones and their partner, James McCafferty, more than $245,000 for at least 244 cadavers between February 2004 and October 2005, prosecutors said.
Mastromarino would then send a "cutting" crew, led by former nurse Lee Cruceta, to Philadelphia to dissect the bodies. Cruceta pleaded guilty in January to abusing corpses and other charges; McCafferty pleaded guilty last month to conspiracy and theft charges.
Some cadavers were left unrefrigerated for days while awaiting the cutters. The tissue stolen from a single body often fetched about $4,000, and Mastromarino made millions from the scheme, prosecutors said.
Authorities were able to identify only 49 of the 244 bodies, since the scam entailed falsifying names, ages and causes of death to disguise corpses that were too old or too diseased to be harvested legally. The Garzones burned their records in the crematorium when investigators started asking questions, Manos said.
One of the plundered bodies was that of Lois Elder, 58, of Philadelphia, who died of complications from a stroke in April 2005, said Taya Elder, her daughter.
Elder, 39, said she is glad to be spared a trial. Even though she heard many of the chilling details during the grand jury investigation that led to the October 2007 indictments, listening to them again in court Tuesday brought her to tears.
"It took me for a loop," Elder said. "It really is shocking."
Her mother was supposed to be cremated. Today, Elder said she can only assume the ashes she has are what was left of her mother's body after the cutting crew finished its work.
The Garzones' pleas came the day their trial was to begin, but they made no statements beyond cursory answers to the judge's questions.
The attorney for Gerald Garzone, 48, of North Wales, said his client's taking responsibility will be a step toward closure for those so visibly upset in the courtroom.
"The healing can begin," said the lawyer, William J. Brennan. "I certainly can appreciate the depth of their emotions."
Louis Garzone, 66, of Philadelphia, also pleaded guilty to insurance fraud.
He claimed in August 2006 that severe depression preventing him from working, Manos said. In reality, he had surrendered his funeral director's license about two months earlier but continued to work at his funeral home, which was then under the auspices of another director, Manos said.
Both Garzones also pleaded guilty to defrauding the state public welfare department, which reimburses funeral homes for services provided to impoverished families. The Garzones filed for about $77,000 in unentitled reimbursements, prosecutors said.
The brothers are free on bail until sentencing Oct. 22.