It played like a reality show - call it "The Bodysnatchers," a true-life saga of body parts for sale - and yesterday the action was fast and furious on several stages.
In a Philadelphia courtroom came a dramatic sequel to last week's bail squabble over the lead defendant in the high-profile scam, an episode that saw a feisty judge attempt to throw a prosecutor out of a hearing.
Meanwhile, 100 miles up the road in Brooklyn, life imitated art as a judge related to actress Marisa Tomei - who won an Academy Award in the courtroom comedy "My Cousin Vinny" - accused a well-known bail bondsman from the HBO reality show "Family Bonds" of "chicanery."
But the most dramatic action took place behind the scenes.
In secret negotiations, a prosecutor here in Philadelphia revealed that the so-called "chief cutter" of the massive scam to sell body parts had already pleaded guilty in Brooklyn, where he had obtained a plea agreement.
And in a major development, Assistant District Attorney Bruce Sagel said the cutter, Lee Cruceta, was a signature away from a similar agreement in Philadelphia in which he could cooperate with authorities.
Now, for the details of the plot:
Common Pleas Judge Pamela Dembe yesterday refused to recuse herself from the body-parts case at the request of the D.A.'s office.
Last week, she revealed in chambers that she had socialized with a key defendant, funeral-home operator Louis Garzone, who allegedly provided 244 corpses to be harvested in the scam.
Yesterday, Dembe said she wanted to clarify the record: She knows Garzone, but not well enough to go to dinner with him. She knows him to say "hi" in passing.
"We don't want a judge who is preordained, or biased," Sagel told her.
Before challenging her integrity in motions, the judge advised Sagel, "You should take a walk around the block.
"You have an ethical obligation to the bench," she added.
A heated exchange then ensued between both sides about what the judge said in chambers, where Sagel claimed he first asked Dembe to recuse herself.
Attorney John Morris, who represents Garzone, argued that Dembe did not have to recuse herself, after she pointed out she would not hear pretrial motions, just deal with discovery - turning over evidence - at a Jan. 14 hearing.
"What the D.A.'s office is doing is whining and trying to intimidate any judge who decides anything against them" by claiming the judge is "biased," Morris said later, speaking also on behalf of attorney William J. Brennan, who represents Garzone's brother, Gerald.
Sagel "kept interrupting me. I've been around too long to be interrupted," said Morris.
The judge ordered Sagel to stop interrupting. And if he couldn't compose himself, he could leave the court, she said. In the next breath, she told him to leave, and they could proceed later.
Dembe and Sagel then engaged in a two-minute stare-down, which ended with Dembe asking: "Are you able to proceed?"
"Yes," Sagel replied.
"With a seasoned prosecutor, veteran defense attorneys and a well-respected judge, it's unfortunate to be in such an unpleasant proceeding," said Brennan.
During the high-stakes hearing, Sagel revealed that Cruceta, 34, of Monroe, N.Y., who participated and directed others to harvest tissue from corpses here, had pleaded guilty as part of a Brooklyn plea agreement and was in negotiations for a similar agreement here.
Cruceta is looking at eight to 20 years in jail on Brooklyn charges, and about a 10-to-20-year consecutive sentence on Philadelphia charges, according to authorities.
Then, Cruceta's attorney, Mary Maran, asked for lower bail for her client. Dembe released Cruceta on his own recognizance - with a promise to pay $500,000 bail if he missed court - just as she did a week ago for Michael Mastromarino, who owned the defunct Biomedical Tissue Services, the company that bought and sold the body parts, prompting the D.A.'s appeals.
As a result of a no-bail deal, Sagel said the plea deal could be in jeopardy and had to be reviewed. Cruceta was expected to be released last night.
Meantime in Brooklyn yesterday, Mastromarino showed up for a bail hearing before Judge Albert Tomei of the Supreme Court, a level similar to Common Pleas Court here.
Last October, HBO's star bail bondsman, Tom Evangelista, owner of American Reliable Insurance Co., said there must have been a mistake that no lien was on Mastromarino's Fort Lee home, owned by his parents.
Yesterday, Evangelista claimed he received a check, which he could not produce, for Mastromarino's $1.5 million bail. But assistant District Attorney Michael Perkins, who recently researched Fort Lee's real estate records, found no lien.
The irate judge then raised the accused ringleader's bail to $3.5 million and ordered a hearing for Mastromarino to show where the money came from - if he could post it.
A court observer said Mastromarino shook his head, glanced at his wife and brother in the second row and said, "I'm not coming out."