March 20, 2006

Funeral Home Probe: Sources: State Eyeing Louis Garzone Body-Parts Allegations

By Simone Weichselbaum, Kitty Caparella & Gloria Campisi, Philadelphia Daily News

Mar. 20--THE STATE AGENCY that monitors the funeral industry is investigating the Louis Garzone Funeral Home, according to sources close to the case.

The Department of State opened its investigation on Louis Garzone's funeral parlor, on East Somerset Street near Ruth, late last week after the Daily News reported that the funeral home allegedly supplied body parts to a Fort Lee, N.J., biomedical tissue company closed by the Food and Drug Administration last month, sources said.

The Department of State licenses and inspects the estimated 1,600 Pennsylvania funeral directors and uses its State Board of Funeral Directors to monitor them.

Officially, the agency would not discuss the investigation.

"We cannot confirm or deny the receipt of a complaint or any ongoing investigation," said department spokesman Brian McDonald.

The owner of Biomedical Tissue Services Inc., his business partner and two tissue-recovery workers were charged last month by the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office with harvesting body parts without legal consent, taking tissue from cadavers in unsanitary conditions and without proper screening for disease. All four have pleaded not guilty.

Ten patients from three Philadelphia university hospitals have learned they received potentially tainted human tissue from Biomedical in recent surgeries.

Those patients, like thousands of others across the country, face testing for HIV, hepatitis B and C, syphilis and other diseases as part of the alleged body-snatching ring, the Brooklyn D.A.'s office said.

The Daily News reported last Thursday that a former Biomedical employee, Kevin Vickers, said he sliced into dozens of corpses lying inside Louis Garzone's funeral home during the last two months of 2004. He said that after he harvested spines, veins, tendons and bones, he brought them in plastic bags on ice to Biomedical. A source familiar with the investigation said the Louis Garzone Funeral Home had sold bodies to Biomedical since the beginning of that year.

About 30 funeral homes in New York City, Rochester, N.Y., and New Jersey, and one in Philadelphia, that may have supplied countless bodies to Biomedical, still are being investigated by the Brooklyn D.A.'s office. Vickers and two sources familiar with the investigation have indicated that the funeral home in Philadelphia is Louis Garzone's.

Garzone has not been named in the indictment, nor charged with a crime. He has declined to comment to the Daily News.

After last week's Daily News report, the medical examiner's office - which directly or indirectly sent 128 unclaimed bodies to Liberty Cremation Inc., part-owned by Louis Garzone, between 2004 and 2005 - is now reviewing its cremation policies, said office spokesman Jeff Moran.

The medical examiner's office policy of rotating the disposition of remains among three crematories and one funeral home will be reviewed by the office's new administrator, David Quain, and by deputy health commissioner Brenda Shields, both appointed last week, Moran said.

Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham would not comment on whether the D.A.'s office is investigating the funeral home, said spokeswoman Cathy Abookire.

As city and state agencies probe the body-parts scandal, or review their policies, local elected leaders said they want to know more about Louis Garzone's business.

"I want to see what the city is going to do," said Councilman Juan Ramos, D-at large. "This is horrific, ghoulish. A lot of poor people deal with that funeral home."

Councilman Frank Rizzo said he also will look into the case.

"If there is something we need to address locally, I will get the ball rolling," he said.

Both councilmen said they recently attended funerals at Louis Garzone's funeral home and have known Garzone as a neighborhood fixture.

In the meantime, families across the city who used the Louis Garzone Funeral Home, particularly in 2004, are asking questions, worried that their relatives' bodies could have been cut up.

Karen Wilson, of Bridesburg, said that since 2001, five members of her family - all of whom died of infectious diseases - were memorialized and cremated at Louis Garzone's.

The most recent Wilson-family death occurred in July 2004, when her brother-in-law died of AIDS, she said, and was cremated by Louis Garzone's employees.

"My concern was: Did he take body parts from my brother-in-law and sell it to that company, who then sold it to a hospital?" Wilson asked.

It is unknown how many body parts Biomedical allegedly bought from Garzone and on what specific dates.

The FDA and Brooklyn prosecutors have said Biomedical failed to properly screen tissue for disease.

Louis Garzone, first licensed as a funeral director in 1966, had his license renewed in November 2005. Garzone is not one of the estimated 1,000 members of the Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association, according to John Erickson, who heads the association. The group asks its members to follow its guide to "Best Practices for Organ and Tissue Donation" - how to deal with tissue-donation agencies, hospitals and the families of the donors.

"I have never seen anything like this before and I hope to never see anything like this again," said Erickson, after reading the Daily News report. "People trust funeral directors."

Under Pennsylvania law, certified funeral directors can authorize the removal only of corneas from corpses. Family consent is required.

About 90 percent of a funeral home's business stems from families who keep coming back, Erickson said.

Community confidence is the essence of a funeral director's reputation, said Janice Mannal, former chairwoman of the State Board of Funeral Directors and longtime funeral director of Robert L. Mannal Funeral Home in Frankford.

"When I am contacted by a family, I view that as a sacred trust," Mannal said. "I view [my role] as keeping their [deceased relatives' bodies] safe."

Theresa Swider said she entrusted Louis Garzone with the body of her brother, Ted, in September 2002 after he died in an Atlantic City hospital because of a severe staphylococcal infection.

Garzone picked up the body and called her the next day and said "it wasn't viewable," Swider said.

"When I went down there, I was gagged by the smell," she said.

Swider said she believed her brother's body was not refrigerated or preserved correctly. She and two other relatives filed suit against Garzone. The case was settled in 2004 for about $46,000, she said.

"I never got any answers," Swider said. "And that bothers me."


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