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Tuesday, August 02, 2011 

TV review: Bodysnatchers of New York.

Michael Mastromarino would describe himself as a "quadruple A personality that's driven". Not many individuals currently serving a sentence of between 18 and 54 years in prison would talk about themselves in such terms, and it's also doubtful that should they essentially have an entire documentary dedicated to their crime they would deliver the line to camera while smiling.

It's also the essential problem with Bodysnatchers of New York, the More 4 documentary (first shown last October, so I'm only slightly belated with this, even if it was repeated last week) on Mastromarino's Biomedical Tissue Services company and its illegal harvesting of the skin and bone of the dead that it focuses to excess on the central figure, letting those involved tell the story and in effect lay all the blame at his feet, giving only very fleeting consideration to those who meant to be regulating Mastromarino's work as well as the companies that were paying for him to cut up cadavers.

The central conceit of letting the various interested parties tell their side of story most egregiously fails in that we fail to learn much about what led Mastromarino to set-up BTS in the first place. All he tells us is that while working as dental surgeon, having had at one point a string of practices across New York, including on Madison Avenue, he started to use Demerol to self-medicate his bad back. The full truth is rather more alarming: he fell asleep while performing surgery and was also found in the bathroom with a syringe in his hand and blood on the floor having already put a patient under general anaesthetic. He was forced to surrender his licence to practise dentistry after he left Ana Ortiz with a permanent "left-facial droop". He was then also arrested for being "under the influence of a controlled dangerous substance", charges which his lawyer Mario Gallucci managed to get dropped.

Knowing that last part would somewhat undermined Mario Gallucci's own appearance, who throughout, not always convincingly portrays himself as just another person misled and lied to by Mastromarino. It would also shine a light on the US Food and Drug Administration, whose extensive three-day course was all Mastromarino had to go on to set himself up as the owner of a tissue bank, his previous unfortunate failings as a dentist not a consideration.

The format does, it must be said, work incredibly well when there's a straight-forward tale to be told: Josh Hanshaft, the district attorney whose initial digging exposed Mastromarino's racket, drives the narrative forward, while the quiet dignity of Dayna Ryan, who had her spine fused with bone harvested from BTS and almost certainly contracted Hepatitis B from it, and Anthony Dumaine, whose father's bones were stolen, is incredibly affecting.

The overall effect though is to deliver an hour-long kicking to Mastromarino, who although still in denial and clearly unrepentant for his actions, continuing to justify them on the grounds that he was only giving people what they wanted and that through the sterilisation methods there was no chance of disease being passed on, doesn't really deserve further vilification. The documentary is far more relenting on Mastromarino's main accomplice, Lee Cruceta, who carried out much of the harvesting. This admittedly is a natural response when Cruceta's appearance gives the impression of a man whose conscience is weighing him down, the heavy bags under his eyes saying almost as much as his sentences, yet he went along with Mastromarino and didn't let the small things like how the tissue was meant to be harvested within 24 hours of death stop him from cutting the bodies up days later, and at least once sewed back up with a surgical glove left inside.

Completely left out of proceedings, one suspects in case legal action was threatened and not just because it wouldn't have fit within the first-person format, is any real comment from the companies whom Mastromarino was supplying. Even though they were tricked into taking the illegally harvested tissue with forged documents, and the samples supplied for pre-testing were swapped with healthy blood, it seems they never did a second test once the actual extracted tissue had arrived, nor did they double check the consent forms. They also didn't query how in such a short space of time Mastromarino managed to supply such quantities of what they wanted, when overwhelming numbers of next of kin normally refuse any such harvesting. Mastromarino's contracts with companies like Regeneration Technologies, Incorporated, still proudly trading and boasting on its site of a "proven record of safety", barely get a mention. The programme ends by fingering greed as the main underlying factor, and while difficult to argue with, it's only Alistair Cooke's daughter, Susan Kittredge, her father the most famous victim of BTS, who points out that "Mastromarino, crook and scum though he is, is a cog in the wheel". Bodysnatchers of New York suggests the opposite.

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