Before 9/11, Lee Cruceta said, he worked as the surgical nurse and manager of an operating room, and harvested tissue, on the side, for a legitimate tissue bank used by hospitals for transplants.
With his wife, Theresa, working as a hospital administrator, the family made $135,000 a year.
In the aftermath of 9/11, Cruceta's wife lost her job, and he began looking for a better one. A respected colleague recommended Michael Mastromarino, who was starting Biomedical Tissue Services, a tissue-recovery business in Fort Lee, N.J. Mastromarino hired him.
That was the beginning of the end of life as the Cruceta family knew it, said Cruceta's attorney, Mary T. Maran.
Yesterday, Cruceta, known as the "lead cutter" in the illegal sale of diseased body parts of 244 deceased Philadelphians, pleaded guilty to conspiracy, corrupt organization and five other charges in a deal for a lower sentence.
His $180,000-a-year role as "the right-hand man" to Mastromarino earned him the dubious distinction of being one of what news reports have called "the modern-day body snatchers."
Cruceta had never committed a crime, until he overlooked the protocols for harvesting tissue and supplying blood to intermediary companies that provided tissue to hospitals for implants, according to Assistant District Attorney Bruce Sagel.
Sagel told Common Pleas Judge Leon W. Tucker that since his arrest last year, Cruceta, 39, of Monroe, N.Y., has "cooperated fully" with authorities here and in New York.
As part of his plea, Sagel and Maran negotiated a prison sentence of six years and eight months, concurrent in both states.
Cruceta had been facing a maximum of 1,700 years in jail, if convicted of more than 1,000 counts here.
The sentence will be served in New York, where he earlier pleaded guilty to related charges.
Yesterday, Cruceta also pleaded guilty here to 244 counts of theft, 244 counts of forgery, one count of fraudulent business practices and one count of abuse of corpse. But Sagel said Cruceta will not be sentenced on those charges as part of the agreement.
Sagel explained to the judge how the multimillion-dollar scam worked: Mastromarino or Cruceta would receive a call notifying them that there were bodies to be harvested in Philadelphia.
In February 2004, Mastromarino had entered into agreements with three funeral-home operators, co-defendants James McCafferty Jr. and brothers Louis and Gerald Garzone, to provide body parts from corpses from their respective funeral homes.
"When cutters came to Philadelphia, they were not given information intentionally," said Sagel. "Each body was given a number, rather than a name, and they were not told the bodies had sepsis, cancer or HIV.
"All the medical records were forged" with phony names, ages, dates of death and claims of being disease-free, said Sagel.
Cruceta admitted falsifying some documents and substituting disease-free blood for the bad blood that accompanied contaminated tissue, later used in transplants.
Mastromarino paid each funeral-home operator $1,000 for each body, for a total of more than $250,000.
Sagel said that some bodies from other funeral homes were diverted from Liberty Cremation, and harvested for parts before cremation, but that the operators of those funeral homes had no knowledge of the scam.
Liberty Cremation, on Ruth Street near Somerset, was owned by McCafferty and the Garzone brothers.
BTS then sold the tissue from each corpse for $10,000 to intermediary processors, such as RTI Technologies, of Aluchua, Fla., before the tissue was resold to hospitals for as much as $100,000 for implants, Sagel added. Tucker set sentencing for June 30. *