Stealing from the Dead: Part Two

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Sandra Chapman/Eyewitness News

Local hospitals and surgeons warned Indiana patients to get tested in the wake of a nationwide tissue implant scare.

Now 13 Investigates uncovers the state's first case connecting stolen - recalled cadaver tissue - to a patient infected with a life-threatening disease.

William Thomas shakes his head at the thought of his new-found diagnosis. "Everyday it's tough, it's tough. It's like a death sentence, it really is," he said.

It all started in 2004, a truck rollover left him banged up and his neck snapped, requiring spinal fusion surgery. One year after undergoing the knife at Deaconess Hospital in Evansville, multiple tests reveal 52-year-old William Thomas contracted a potentially life-threatening disease. He can still hear the doctor's words.

"We don't know what stage you're in, but you've tested positive for Hepatitis C," he remembered.

Prior to his surgery, blood tests showed no trace of the chronic liver disease. It wasn't until months later, in October 2005, that he learned the batch of tissue used to repair his neck was part of a gruesome nationwide scandal and recall.

According to the FDA, the tissue may not have been properly screened.

"I said, 'Oh, my God. You mean to tell me they got bodies, cadaver parts that wasn't even screened or anything? And I might be one that's contaminated?' Oh man, I can't believe this."

Thomas is not alone. Eyewitness News confirmed dozens of central Indiana patients also received letters urging them to get tested. Despite FDA claims that the risk of contracting HIV, Hepatitis, or Syphilis are low, patients live in daily fear, and now for good reason. William Thomas is the first Indiana patient under the recall to test positive.

Another concerned implant patient is speaking out but wants his identity concealed.

"Just knowing that that possibility exists, it's utterly depressing," the patient told Eyewitness News.

William Thomas wonders how this could happen. He thought the materials were supposed to be sterile.

Prosecutors in New York blame a group of unscrupulous funeral directors thousands of miles away from Indiana.

In a 122-count indictment obtained by Eyewitness News, four principal defendants are accused of the running a harvesting ring, forging donor consent forms, changing the ages of the dead and their official causes of death.

The four men charged are Michael Matromarino, Joseph Nicelli, Lee Cruceta and Christopher Aldorasi.

William Thomas says the case is unreal. "I can't believe anybody human would do anybody like that," he said.

Just weeks ago, seven New York area funeral directors pleaded guilty to taking bone and tissue from potentially diseased cadavers and selling it to tissue banks across the country. They even raided the body of former Masterpiece Theatre host Alistair Cooke, who died of lung cancer. He was 95.

The recalled tissue and bone was allegedly funneled to Biomedical Tissue Services in New Jersey, then sold to distributors like the Blood and Tissue Bank of Central Texas, Life Cell Corporation in New Jersey, the Lost Mountain Tissue Bank in Georgia, and Tutogen Medical and Regeneration Technologies, both in Florida.

Regeneration Technologies is the same Florida-based tissue supplier for Indy's largest and most trusted hospitals. It's the same vendor named in William Thomas' case - an alarming discovery considering the same batch of tissue was distributed for use in other surgeries.

"If William was infected from that tissue, then it would make all the sense in the world the other recipients of that tissue also have been infected," said Indianapolis attorney Richard Shevitz. Shevitz, who works for the law firm Cohen and Malaad, represents the Indiana patients who received the questionable tissue in a nationwide class action lawsuit.

The firm also filed a separate case on behalf of William Thomas.

"They said, 'We think the risk is very low, but we don't know.' And I think if you're William Thomas or the other patients the most important part of that sentence is, 'but we don't know,'" Shevitz told Eyewitness News. "This industry cries out for greater oversight."

Victims like William Thomas cry silent tears over the callous disregard. He agrees it's a case of profits over people.

"They got paid. They got big money off of that, you know. It's a joke to them. I don't think they considered at any time about anybody's life. As long as they were making money, they didn't care."

William Thomas faces months of treatment similar to chemotherapy.

Regeneration Technologies refused comment, but claims it's cleansing process destroys contaminants.

The tissue recall involves patients who had surgeries between September 2004 and 2005. So far 300 patients nationwide are suing.

The FDA has launched a new tissue safety task force to increase public confidence. Properly collected and screened tissue is a critical component in healthcare. It's used in a variety of reconstructive surgeries.

US FDA: Keeping Tissue Safe

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