Welcome to yet another Freaky Friday ere on Lawyers & Liquor, where we explore the ether of the macabre meanderings the law and legal cases may sometimes take. I’m your ghost host, the Boo-zy Barrister, here with another tale from the crypts of the legal world to chill and thrill you courtesy of Quack Quack Honk Designs. Even a rotting corpse deserves a treat every now and again, and some amazing art from the inimitable artisan at Quack Quack Honk Designs is the perfect way to treat yourself on those evenings where your dungeon looks a little drab. Shamble over to their shop to look at their wares, commission an original work, or find out where in the world they may be at an upcoming convention or art show – and be sure to thank them for sponsoring this site when you do.
Funerals are a time of remembering the recently departed, filled with tears of sorrow and laughter at the memories of times past. To help this process of grief and healing, we often turn to funeral directors and funeral homes to guide the mourners through the experience and to provide a little tender care to them. However, as we’ve seen before, the funeral industry is – at its bones – an industry, beholden for many not to the loving care of the deceased and those they leave behind but rather the bottom line. To this end, funeral homes and funeral directors are always looking to turn a profit in the trade of death, and come under criticism for doing so at times. Be it attempting to upsell a more expensive casket, a larger funeral package, a special headstone, or simply removing all the bones from the body of dear old Grandpa and selling them off to the highest bidder, a business has to engage in some minor practices that folks may find detestable to stay in business.
What was that last one?
THE STORY: Mastering Pieces
Joseph Nicelli is described in multiple newspaper reports from the period as a “freelance embalmer and funeral director” which…I mean, that sort of sounds like the type of field where freelancing shouldn’t be a thing. Do they find them on Craigslist? Is it right behind the guy looking for someone to drive his car around without shoes on? A house painter? Like “Need three bedrooms painted, ability to embalm Aunt Mary in the basement a plus.” That’s a little creepy.
But as we all know, freelancing isn’t exactly the most profitable endeavor, and I assume is even less profitable when its in such a specific field because there most definitely is no Fiver for Funerals (Note: log this as a possible business idea in the future). So when Nicelli ended up lucking into the purchase of the Daniel George & Son Funeral Home in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, New York City. And for years it appeared that Nicelli operated it as a reasonably priced funeral home in the borough of Brooklyn, without many issues outside of those regularly seen in the funeral industry. The funeral home was, indeed, profitable enough that in about April of 2004 Nicelli was able to sell the real estate and the business itself to Robert Nelms and Debra Johnson for $1,500,000…or you know it was Brooklyn in 2004, so maybe that just bought a square on the sidewalk or something. I’m not up to date on my New York City real estate values other than the fact a house is apparently the cost of several pieces of avocado toast.
It wasn’t long after that the absentee owners of the Daniel George & Sons Funeral Home, who were actually investors that operated mainly in the midwest, began to hear complaints from the families that utilized their services. The complaints were primarily financial in nature: paying for services that the on-site manager and funeral director, again our freelance hero Mr. Nicelli, allegedly wasn’t providing at the final resting place and viewing of the dearly departed loved ones. And so, like any responsible investors in an enterprise, they went out to investigate – although it’s likely the investigation and involvement was more in the line of determining the value of the place considering that the owners, Nelms and Johnson, were going through a somewhat acrimonious division of their marital assets including their positions as the Lehman Brothers of Bodies. And Johnson, who was tasked with investigating the complaints of the grieving customers so it didn’t get bad Yelp reviews, was the one who set foot in Bensonhurst to check on the operations and therefore the one who discovered what appeared to be a secret surgical suite built onto the second floor of the building and began to hear whispers of strange goings on in the funeral parlor itself.
And boy, is that a fucking understatement.
GHOULS ARE REAL.
Historically a Ghoul is a “demon or monster” that is associated with consuming the flesh of the dead – like a cannibal, but supernatural and less likely to have a musical made about them by the guys that made South Park. We’ve come to put the word to effect in describing a variety of people, from those merely interested in the macabre all the way to gravediggers that loot the corpses they are to shortly bury, as well as the bodysnatchers of yore – those people that, during a crisis of fewer bodies than needed for medical dissection and education would rampage through the cemeteries and take the freshly buried without permission for the purposes of advancing science. Former oral surgeon Michael Mastromarino, who had lost his license to dig around in folk’s mouths after his love for painkillers became a little to obvious, was one of the latter.
Mastromarino, as a person who performs dental implants, grafts, and transplants of bones into the head of people who may or may not have appeared in the Faces of Meth (it is New Jersey after all), was well aware of the burgeoning trade in the bones and parts of the recently deceased. Unlike the Burke and Hare of history, though, the bodies and their parts weren’t needed for study, evaluation, and education – rather they were required for transplants into patients that stood a chance of survival. As the parts sought were normally bones and other parts that could be taken from a body after the organs themselves had died, Mastromarino came up with a plan to meet the need: he would start a company known as Biomedical Tissue Services, and then he would go around to funeral homes in several states recruiting funeral directors, embalmers, and morticians to provide him with the skeletal infrastructure, skin, and other transplantable bits of the bodies that came into the home for preparation in anticipation of the afterlife. Then, through his company, he would sell those parts off to companies and groups that would find living, breathing forever homes for them and hopefully save lives.
Which is, you know, actually legal if done correctly.
And by done correctly I mean “with the permission of the next of kin of the deceased.”
Which Mastromarino and his cohorts certainly didn’t get.
A CRIMINAL ENTERPRISE OF ETERNAL DAMNATION.
Instead of receiving the permission of the families, Mastromarino and his crew of “cutters” (what they actually referred to themselves as) would simply…harvest body parts from whoever they fucking wished and then create fictional relatives to sign the releases before selling those parts off to legitimate supplies. So profitable was this endeavor that Mastromarino, who had cutters across several states, would actually pay to install regulation compliant surgical suites in the funeral homes operating as a part of his ring – cutting out the middleman so to speak. And, make no mistake, those suites became Disassembly Lines of Death. At trial, cutters from Nicelli’s funeral home testified that they could strip a body of all of its bones and skin, then prepare it for cremation or viewing as appropriate in less than an hour per body.
Yes, you read that right.
They would literally strip the skin from the bodies. Because skin grafts are a thing.
One guy testified that an entire human skin can fit quite well into a single jar.
I bet you could have gone a while without knowing that, huh?
HOW DO PEOPLE NOT NOTICE THIS?
The cutters were, for the most part, professionals in the funeral industry and knew how to cover things up. For instance, did you know that when people lose bones in a fatal accident but are being set for an open casket viewing, morticians just…replace your fucking bones with PVC piping? I sure as hell didn’t. But they do. And that’s one of the tricks these guys would use after stripping your skeleton straight out of your body: jam some low grade plumbing in there, attach a faucet to grandpa’s asshole, and shove him in the coffin for viewing! Strip only the skin that would be covered by the clothes worn at the viewing and add a bit of powder to soak up fluids – it only has to work for a little while. Open casket but the legs are covered? Fuck it, nobody’s gonna see it, strip the skin below the waist, take the bones, and leave the flesh sitting underneath that nice oak casket topper like two deflated balloons. Nobody would ever know!
But, you know, those pesky families tended to notice things like “Grandpa seems to have lost a few inches after death” – an actual complaint that was received by Nelms and Johnson.
And when those complaints started coming in, especially the ones about financial irregularities (because, honestly, who expects a funeral director to be chopping bits off of the bodies for resale), Ms. Johnson headed directly to the police to report that Nicelli may have been withholding or misappropriating funds that customers had paid. Then the police came by and, well, got a little concerned at the complete surgical suite in a funeral home and began investigating whether any bodies had been tampered with. Then the entire house of cards came crashing down when they discovered corpses that were more plumbing than person were being shipped out to be mourned and Nicelli found himself at the center of a scandal which broke wide open by the New York Post.
Then the Brooklyn DA began to investigate and the extent of the enterprise was known. This wasn’t a single funeral home, but rather merely a part of a massive ring of funeral homes all headed up by Mastromarino, who was raking in millions of dollars per year from the enterprise and paying funeral homes $1,000.00 per body they treated as a pull-a-part junkyard. Millions of dollars. And it worked…because most of the funeral homes that were contacted and a part of it were in poorer urban areas and offering discount services to increase the likelihood of the people complaining about things going unnoticed and, if noticed, mainly unheard.
Except for the celebrity they sold off.
ALISTAIR COOKE: IN PIECES.
Americans of a certain age, and whose parents were into that sort of thing, would recognize Alistair Cooke. The BBC correspondent whose Letters from America were a radio fixture until his retirement in 2004 was also, for 22 years, the host of PBS’s Masterpiece Theater. So, when this fixture of public television died of cancer in 2004, we naturally all lowered our totebags received for a minor donation to halfmast. And then his family, conceding to the practical Cooke’s final wishes, located what appeared to be a bargain cremation company to take away his corpse and return powdered professionalism to them for scattering.
But that company was Daniel George & Sons Funeral Home. Who, with a fresh cadaver set for an oven, proceeded to procure every piece of Cooke they could for sale to third parties. However, Cooke’s cancer had spread to his bones as well, and Mastromarino – having sucked the bones from the body – needed to make them suitable for sale. Of course, that meant some forgery and lying, altering the death certificate to list the cause of death as heart failure before selling off the cancerous Cooke’s bones for implantation in others. While there were no confirmed cases of Cooke living on to kill another person, it is likely…and likely not unusual in that situation.
The end result of all of this was a conviction. Nicelli, Mastromarino, and others were all convicted in New York of body snatching which is…apparenetly a thing still on the books? They were also convicted of criminal conspiracy charges. And, in no surprise, Mastromarino further stood trial in Pennsylvania on 244 counts of “theft by unlawful taking” for stealing body parts and having a hand in doing so through Philadelphia funeral homes. At that time, Mastromarino was to serve 44 years in New York, then a series of 53 year sentences in Pennsylvania – effectively a life sentence for his role in masterminding the stealing of bodies. However, he wouldn’t be able to serve all of that time, as he died in prison in 2013 of…appropriately…bone cancer. Which rendered his bones unsuitable for transplantation.
As to Nicelli, he was sentenced to 8-24 years in prison on charges of enterprise corruption, body stealing (4 counts), opening graves (4 counts), unlawful dissection of a human being (4 counts), forgery in the second degree (9 counts), forgery in the third degree (9 counts), criminal possession of a forged instrument in the second degree (9 counts), criminal possession of a forged instrument in the third degree (9 counts), falsifying business records in the first degree (36 counts), grand larceny in the third degree (10 counts), grand larceny in the fourth degree (8 counts), reckless endangerment in the first degree (9 counts), reckless endangerment in the second degree (9 counts), and scheme to defraud in the first degree via a plea deal prior to trial. However, while convicted in 2009, Nicelli – with little access to cadavers to slice up – proved to be a model prisoner. He’s currently out on parole as of November 3, 2015. At last report, he was in Staten Island, but not working in the funeral trades anymore.
THAT’S A WRAP
Funeral homes and directors are in a position of public trust. We entrust them with the remains of our loved ones. We expect them to act with due respect, and to tread carefully in this realm. We expect them to comport themselves to a standard that one would want if they are grieving the lost of a family member or friend. Too often, though, we never peer behind the curtain at what they do when the mortuary doors are closed. And that can lead to a situation where our friends and family members are not respectfully prepared and shepherded into the next world, but rather dissected and sold piecemeal to the highest bidder when this expectation of respect butts up against greed and corruption.
Now we’ll close the crypt doors on another Freaky Friday. I’ll see you next crime.