In the early morning of Nov. 21, 2005, New York City police officers exhumed a body from the Maple Grove Cemetery in Queens. What they found in the casket was horrifying -- the bones in the lower half of the body were gone -- replaced with plastic PVC pipe.
Brooklyn Assistant District Attorney Josh Hanshaft took the body to the medical examiner's office to confirm the results.
"The first thing they did was take an X-ray of the whole body and you know, I'm ... not being facetious, it looked like the underneath of a person's sink," Hanshaft said. "You had the elbow pipes, you had the leg pipes, you had screws that screwed the feet into the piping."
In what police say is one of the strangest cases they've ever seen, a New Jersey-based company called Biomedical Tissue Services is accused of illegally harvesting body parts from funeral homes across the city and selling them for big profits.
Authorities began their investigation when the new owner of the Daniel George funeral home in Brooklyn called the police to complain about the previous owner in an unrelated matter . In a visit to the funeral home, police found an upstairs room outfitted like a surgical suite.
Police say they also found cut-up cadavers, bones harvested, human hearts excised from chests -- all taken without permission of the deceased's families.
The police and district attorney say they had stumbled onto a renegade tissue procurement operation, catering to one of the most important and fastest-growing businesses in modern medicine -- supplying new tissue for transplants -- such as skin for burn victims, new heart valves for patients with faulty ones, and ligaments and tendons for sports injuries.
To procure tissue legally, permission is needed from the donor (for example, in a living will) or the donor's next of kin before a company can harvest body parts. Under those circumstances, replacing bone with PVC pipe would be fine.
But investigators believed they had found the first signs of a criminal enterprise that they say will ultimately be tied to dozens of funeral homes.
Authorities needed to determine how the ring was acquiring bodies. After contacting funeral homes and subpoenaing records, the district attorney's office finally hit pay dirt. They found a signature on a next-of-kin consent form had clearly been forged, say prosecutors.
"It was almost the perfect crime. Who was going to complain? Families didn't know it was happening. The people or the deceased who it was happening to, obviously could not speak," said First Deputy District Attorney Michael Vecchione.
Investigators had to ask families of the deceased if they had donated the bodies of their loved ones. "Some of them were just devastated," said an investigator. "Some of them were even taking the position of, 'Where was the other half of my mother or father? How can I get it back?'"
Members of the alleged operation even took tissue from Alistair Cooke, the host of "Masterpiece Theater," say authorities.
His daughter, Susan, said it wasn't just a material theft, but a spiritual one. "To the families of people whose loved ones have been stolen, it is a desecration not only to the body of their loved ones but to their grief," she said.
It was a crime of appalling dimensions, with 1,077 bodies harvested, say prosecutors.