Imagine going in for a routine operation only to find out months later that the tissue and bone used in your surgery could kill you one day.
That's exactly what happened to Robbie Zappa of Georgia. He had neck surgery last summer. In December, he got a letter from his doctor urging him to get tested for syphilis, hepatitis A and B, and even HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Zappa is healthy so far. He's lucky.
So why does Robbie Zappa have to get tested for these diseases?
Prosecutors in New York City, hundreds of miles away from where Zappa lives, say toxic tissue was harvested illegally from corpses and sold to the medical community. Four men from New York City are charged with "enterprise corruption" for stripping dead people of tissue and bone to make a buck in the body parts business. It's a billion dollar industry.
Prosecutors say the alleged kingpin in this body snatching scheme, Michael Mastromarino, forged donor forms and changed medical histories in order to pass off diseased tissue as healthy to tissue banks and hospitals.
Mastromarino's defense attorney, Mario Gallucci, says his client denies illegally harvesting body parts. Gallucci says Mastromarino inspected bodies at the funeral homes' request and collected the tissue to be tested. But, Galluci insists, it was the processors that determined what tissue was diseased or viable for sale to the medical community. At no point, Gallucci says, was his client ever told any tissue was diseased.
As for consent forms, Gallucci says, "The funeral home would fill out that form and give it to the doctor." He says Mastromarino had no way of knowing if they were fraudulent.
One of the bodies allegedly harvested belonged to Brooklyn, New York-native Dannette Kogut. She died of ovarian cancer last year. Her sister, Wendy Kogut, told me her last dying wish was to be cremated. She was, but likely not all of her. Now, Wendy is living with the guilt of not carrying out her sister's last wish.
Wendy says someone stole her sister's leg bones and pelvic bone and even parts of her skin before she was cremated. She says police told her the forged donor form was signed by her grandfather, who has been dead 30 years. Wendy says the form also reads that her sister died of "blunt trauma" instead of ovarian cancer, which could be one way the masterminds behind this scheme passed-off Danette Kogut's tissue as healthy.
Her diseased tissue, like the tissue from hundreds of others, has likely made its way to other countries. The prosecutor told me this body-snatching scheme could reach as far away as Europe.
It is believed the men behind this scheme made as much as $4 million selling harvested bone and tissue without consent. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says parts from a single body can be used in as many as 250 different people and can sell for as much as $250,000.
This whole situation makes you think twice about going in for surgery, doesn't it? I think about all the people whose lives may be affected by this. There are victims on both sides here: Those with relatives whose corpses may have been illegally harvested, and those like Robbie Zappa, who will wonder for years to come if the tissue implanted inside him will make him sick.