The bones of the late broadcaster Alistair Cooke, whose legendary Letter from America became one of the BBC's most treasured dispatches, were stolen shortly before his cremation, it was alleged yesterday.
As his life's work drew tributes from both sides of the Atlantic, a criminal gang allegedly surgically removed his bones and sold them for more than $7,000 (£4,000) to a company supplying parts for use in dental implants and other orthopaedic procedures, according to the New York Daily News.
An investigation into the gang, which is alleged to have made millions from several hundred similar snatches, is being carried out by the Brooklyn district attorney's office. Last week it called the Cooke family to say that his corpse had been mutilated and sold.
Speaking last night, Cooke's daughter, Susan Kittredge, described the news as "appalling".
Cooke, a former Guardian writer, died of cancer in March 2004. His body was taken to a funeral home in Spanish Harlem on the Upper East side of Manhattan and was cremated two days later. A few weeks after that his family granted him his dying wish by sprinkling his ashes from Starbucks cups in Central Park.
"[The] family is shocked and saddened by news that following his death parts of his body were illegally sold for transplant," said Mrs Kittredge, who lives in Vermont. "That people in need of healing should have received his body parts, considering his age and the fact that he was ill when he died, is as appalling to the family as is that his remains were violated."
She said her mother was on her way from New York to join her, adding: "Mother is 93 and it's as disturbing and confusing and unimaginable for her as it is for most people."
Cooke's long-time secretary, Patricia Yasek, said the news was "truly appalling" and too upsetting to talk about. The broadcaster's stepdaughter, Holly Rumbold, told the BBC that what had been done to his body was "corrupt and evil".
She went on to express frustration and fear that, given that her father had had bone cancer, any transplant could compound the tragedy.
"I'm most shocked by the violation of the medical ethics that my stepfather's ancient and cancerous bones should have been passed off as healthy tissue to innocent patients in their quest for better health," she said.
The criminal gang accused of stealing Cooke's bones is at the heart of an extensive ring of conspirators, including funeral homes, surgeons and biomedical companies that has allegedly been in operation for at least five years. The gang is believed to have sold tendons, ligaments and dental remains. Authorities are also investigating whether they have sold skin for burn victims and heart valves and arteries for cardiac patients.
Funeral directors were reportedly paid $500 for a corpse, which would then be dissected. The relevant body parts were then taken away and PVC pipes used to fill out the clothed bodies that would go into open caskets. The body parts would later be separated, frozen and shipped to legitimate companies which would undertake further processing before final sale and transplant. Meanwhile medical records, including the age of the deceased and cause of death, would be altered to make the body parts more attractive to buyers.
Cooke's case is one of hundreds under investigation since the alleged ring was exposed around 18 months ago.
Last month an 82-year-old grandmother from Queens, Esfir Perelmuter, was exhumed to reveal that most of her bones below the waist were missing and replaced with plastic plumbing pipe. Ms Perelmuter was 82 and died of brain cancer. The medical records submitted for her said she was 65 and died of a heart attack.
The Brooklyn district attorney's office said yesterday it had no comment to make on the case. Letter from America, which began in 1946 and chronicled the changing nature of US politics, society and culture, became the world's longest-running speech radio programme. It ran to 2,869 editions over six decades before Cooke recorded his last report on February 20 2004, a few weeks before his death.
A BBC spokeswoman said last night: "We share people's extreme revulsion at this news and our thoughts are with Alistair's family."