Cadavers wrongly went to Carlow, former aide says in Wecht case
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The U.S. government's most ghoulish claim against former Coroner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht -- that he traded cadavers for free lab space at Carlow University to perform autopsies for his private business -- took center stage at his trial yesterday as a former subordinate testified about the alleged practice.
Prosecutors focused their witness, Edward Strimlan, on documents indicating that two bodies were sent in 2005 from the former Allegheny County coroner's office to Carlow, apparently for student dissection, without any notice to family members of the deceased.
Mr. Strimlan is a senior forensic investigator at what is now the Allegheny County medical examiner's office and worked under Dr. Wecht for years.
Among the schemes alleged by the government in its 41-count indictment that generally charges Dr. Wecht with using his public office for private gain, one concerns a quid pro quo arrangement with Carlow.
In opening statements Monday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen S. Stallings said Dr. Wecht cut a deal to trade bodies with Carlow because the rent had skyrocketed at the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science, whose facilities he had previously used.
Mr. Stallings told jurors that once Dr. Wecht had established himself at a new lab at Carlow, at least "16 souls" were sent to the school to be autopsied without any next of kin being notified or providing consent.
Dr. Wecht's attorney, Jerry McDevitt, contended in court that the coroner has the power under the law to provide unclaimed bodies for educational purposes.
In one case highlighted by the prosecution, the corpse of Michelle Rohasky, who died naturally on Sept. 21, 2005, was shipped to Carlow that day only three hours and 10 minutes after arriving at the morgue.
Instead of the coroner's employees keeping the corpse in the morgue's cooler while trying to track down the woman's family, as per office protocol described by Mr. Strimlan, the staff released the body to Carlow, he testified.
Although the woman's death certificate indicated that no autopsy was performed, one of the forms generated by the coroner's office in connection with the body contained the notation "to Carlow College for autopsy," according to documents shown to jurors.
Asked if he could explain why the body was sent so quickly, Mr. Strimlan said he was informed at some point by former Chief Deputy Coroner Joseph Dominick and Joe Mancuso, Dr. Wecht's private autopsy technician, "that [Carlow] no longer wanted bodies that had already been embalmed."
The other case involved Charles Dumont, who died Nov. 13, 2005. His sister was notified that day of his death and planned to make funeral arrangements. His body was supposed to be kept at the morgue. However, it, too, was shipped to Carlow.
Again, information indicating that no autopsy occurred was entered on the death certificate. But a form displayed to jurors had a handwritten note that the body was taken to the school. Asked what the lab at Carlow was used for in this case, Mr. Strimlan replied, "autopsies."
Mr. Strimlan testified that top supervisors at the coroner's office -- but not Dr. Wecht himself -- told him unclaimed bodies that had no funeral arrangements would be shipped to Carlow.
Mr. Strimlan said he was hesitant at first. He testified he was told the contact person would be Mr. Mancuso, who works at Cyril H. Wecht & Pathology Associates.
Under cross-examination, Mr. Strimlan acknowledged he did not know of any direct role Dr. Wecht played in the case involving the man's body sent to Carlow.
Mr. McDevitt spent a good portion of the day probing Mr. Strimlan's earlier testimony about running a variety of errands for Dr. Wecht. He also elicited testimony about how Mr. Strimlan himself used the coroner's office for private business.
Mr. Strimlan said he and his colleagues sold T-shirts commonly known as "reaper wear" out of the office, netting him hundreds of dollars over the years. Some of the shirts had the coroner's office name and images of chalk outlines or the grim reaper.
He said he used equipment at the coroner's office to send faxes pertaining to his moonlighting as a teacher at several area colleges and universities, and said he used office computers to monitor his stock portfolio.
Mr. Strimlan also testified that he and other deputy coroners used to ferry another former coroner, Dr. Joshua Perper, around town and to the airport.
Mr. Strimlan was complimentary of Dr. Wecht, saying the former coroner treated him with respect and was kind to him.
"He's been more than helpful to me," Mr. Strimlan said. "He's been very supportive of me."
Toward the end of yesterday's proceedings, U.S. District Court Judge Arthur J. Schwab, who is presiding in the case, admonished attorneys to take extra pains to avoid contact with the jury.
It was not clear what prompted the warning, but the judge polled each of the case's six attorneys whether they had contact with jurors. Each said no.
At day's end, the judge informed the jury without any explanation that they would use a different door from the public from now on.
Testimony in the case, which is expected to last eight to 10 weeks, resumes today.
First Published January 30, 2008 12:00 am