Sandra Chapman/13 Investigates
Indianapolis - It's a gruesome crime buried in greed. Some 19,000 lots of stolen, unscreened cadaver tissue was implanted into thousands of surgery patients, with dozens in Indiana.
Now for the first time, the Indianapolis businessman who first uncovered suspicious links to the harvesting ring tells his story exclusively to Eyewitness News.
X-rays of an exhumed body expose the horrific secrets of a harvesting ring. White plastic pipes used for home plumbing projects replace stolen human leg bones from the hip sockets down to the ankle.
The use of PVC pipe is standard practice in harvesting. But more than 1,000 deceased victims whose families never gave consent went to their graves with disturbing evidence buried inside them.
"You hope that people rest in peace, and then you learn that they rest without pieces," said Eric Franz, a high-powered Manhattan, New York criminal attorney hired to represent the Indiana whistle blower who led authorities to the trail of tissue.
So far, seven New York area funeral directors admit to cashing in on what they carved out. Bone and Ttssue from one cadaver can bring sellers up to $250,000.
"The catalyst for this was not bone harvesting. The catalyst for this was simply greed," said Franz. "It's the perfect crime until somebody like Robert Nelms comes forward."
Indianapolis businessman Robert Nelms owns Memory Gardens. He operates more than a dozen funeral homes. Four of them are in Indiana, including Forest Lawn in Greenwood.
But it's the New York funeral home he bought in late 2003 that made national headlines. Eyewitness News asked Nelms if he had any prior knowledge about the bone and tissue harvesting taking place in the Daniel George and Sons Funeral home in the quiet working class Bensonhurst neighborhood in Brooklyn.
"Absolutely not," he responded.
In early 2004, Nelms had two families come into his office with contracts for pre-paid funeral services. He discovered there were no records of those particular funeral files and the trust money the families paid was missing.
Unable to get straight answers from the previous owner, Joe Nicelli, Nelms and his wife started digging into the records that were inside the facility.
He was taken back by what he found. "There were death certificates that were changed. They would go to Home Depot with a Home Depot credit card and buy PVC pipe -- copies of checks, copies of FedEx receipts -- copies of you name it -- that would prove things didn't make sense," he told Eyewitness News.
But the FedEx receipts created a trail straight to Biomedical Tissue Services in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
Nelms was suspicious, but all he could prove stolen was money. He went to the NYPD in Brooklyn, then to the Kings County District Attorney two separate times. Nelms says he was sent away and told to take his records and go build a case.
"Funeral Directors take an oath and that is to care for the dead. And there's nothing more, nothing more disgraceful in my opinion than to take something from someone who doesn't even have the ability to defend themselves," said Nelms.
The New York Police Department continued investigating. Back at the funeral home, Nelms came across a major slip-up by an employee wanting money for "after hours" work that he knew nothing about.
According to Nelms, that's how the operation came to light. "Somebody turned in a payroll form for doing a long bone tissue transplant for extra comp because they had worked all night."
Nelms then describes his first thoughts about what might be happening at his new funeral home.
"Obviously the worst. You go to the absolute bottom of the barrel and then start working your way back. You're devastated. I mean think about it. I have a funeral home where I'm seeing things that are scaring the living heck out of me."
Two long-time employees who stayed with the funeral home after Nelms bought it confirmed tissue harvesting was taking place. Prior to embalming and without proper family consent, bodies were put on a lift and raised through the floor to a second floor operating room for the take.
Nelms went to the FBI. He says only then did the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office ask for his records.
All during that same period of time, surgery patients nationwide and here in Indiana were implanted with suspect tissue. Nelms understood lives were on the line. It turns out, so was his own.
"We've had five death threats - five death threats where we have been called stating that if we come forward that we will be killed."
Nelms says the illegal operation ran so deep, the FBI investigated but ruled out possible ties to organized crime. He says fear could not justify keeping quiet, especially knowing what happened to all the victims.
"Heck, yeah, I was -- I was afraid. I'm not afraid anymore."
But Nelms is angry that he wasn't taken more seriously when he first came forward.
"I harbor ill will and hold people very accountable because this could have been stopped a whole lot earlier had someone just listened to me."
The FDA and the Brooklyn District Attorney won't say why it took more than a year after the criminal investigation to shut the operation down.