More Wecht staffers testify about go-fer work
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Two prosecution witnesses in the case against Dr. Cyril H. Wecht seemed to score points for the opposition yesterday when they said how proud they were to work under the former Allegheny County coroner.
But two other deputies in the office told the jury that running personal errands for Dr. Wecht took precedence over death calls they were supposed to handle.
Those were the two conflicting portraits of Dr. Wecht painted on the third day of his trial on 41 federal counts, including mail and wire fraud and theft of honest services.
So far, the government has focused on so-called "Wecht details," in which deputy coroners would do personal errands for Dr. Wecht and his family.
Richard Lorah, who still works as a forensic investigator at what is now the county medical examiner's office, said he often drove Dr. Wecht around town.
One day, he said, when a woman drove her vehicle off a Downtown parking garage and Mr. Lorah was supposed to respond to the scene, "the defendant said, 'Just let them lay there. They're not going anywhere.'"
Before responding to the accident scene, Mr. Lorah was instead instructed to drive to Duquesne University to drop off mail to Dr. Wecht's son, Ben, who worked there.
On cross-examination, defense attorney Jerry McDevitt asked of Dr. Wecht's comment: "That's a pretty shocking statement for Dr. Wecht to make, right?"
"Yeah, but it did happen from time to time," Mr. Lorah responded.
He also told the jury that once, when he failed to appear at the correct street corner to pick up Dr. Wecht, the former coroner swore at him and called him "a Neanderthal."
Darlene Craig, another deputy coroner who worked under Dr. Wecht, testified that she was once summoned to the scene of a hanging in Plum but was first ordered to make three Wecht detail stops -- at the Wecht law firm, Duquesne University and PPG Place -- before responding.
"I made those deliveries before I went to the hanging, and that body was hanging outside," she said.
Ms. Craig said the Wecht details took precedence over her job.
"It has always been my understanding since day one of 1999, when I was employed ... that they took priority over our day-to-day responsibilities," Ms. Craig said.
But she also told the jury that it was not Dr. Wecht who gave her those instructions, but Assistant Chief Deputy Coroner Terry Browne.
Another deputy coroner classified Mr. Browne's management style as "an enforcer," and that of Chief Deputy Coroner Joe Dominick as "Hitler."
Curtis Williams, who still works in the office, testified that Wecht details were most often performed on the deputies' private, off-duty time under former Chief Deputy Coroner James Bentz.
But when Mr. Dominick and Mr. Browne took over, that changed, and Wecht details became common occurrences for on-duty employees.
"Did you mind doing them for this man?" asked defense attorney Mark Rush.
"No, sir," Mr. Williams answered.
"Did he ever ask you to do anything wrong?"
"No, sir," he again responded.
Questioning of another deputy coroner, John J. Smith, seemed to be heading in another direction under the prosecution.
Mr. Smith told jurors that he participated in the Wecht details to keep his job.
"If you refused to do details, you were fired. Your shift was changed," he said. "Your days off were changed."
Once, in 1998, he said he was asked to walk Dr. Wecht's daughter's dog. Though he was on-duty at the time, he was told to put on a civilian shirt. He drove his own car to the house and was paid $25 by Dr. Wecht.
On another detail, he was asked to drive Dr. Wecht's son and daughter-in-law to the airport very early in the morning before his shift began. When Dr. Wecht arrived at the coroner's office that day, he dropped two $1 bills in front of Mr. Smith.
"He put some money on the table and said, 'Thank you, Smitty, thank you,'" he recounted. "I was insulted."
Upon cross-examination by Mr. Rush, Mr. Smith said he hoped that the $2 tip from Dr. Wecht was a mistake and that the man had simply grabbed the wrong bills out of his wallet.
His testimony continued to turn in favor of the defense, and by the end of it, he had agreed with Mr. Williams' assessment of Dr. Wecht as "a good guy."
He said he wasn't bothered by doing the Wecht details.
"This didn't impact your abilities to fulfill your duties at the coroner's office, did it?" Mr. Rush asked.
"No, sir," Mr. Smith answered.
Earlier in the day, the owner of a Lawrenceville funeral home testified that he filed a complaint with the state vital records office when he learned that a man who had died of natural causes was improperly autopsied at Dr. Wecht's office.
Daniel T. D'Alessandro said he was handling arrangements for Charles J. Dumont, who died Nov. 13, 2005. The man's sister wanted a private service and for her brother to be cremated. Though the coroner's office had possession of the body for storage until the funeral home could pick it up, it was not to be autopsied; however, when Mr. Dumont's remains made it to the funeral home, employees there found an incision, indicating an autopsy had been performed.
"I was upset," he said. "There was no need for this man to be autopsied. He was not a coroner's case."
Mr. D'Alessandro said when he inquired with the office about what had happened, he was told "someone in the back" had ordered the autopsy to verify the doctor's diagnosis. When he then asked to get a replacement death certificate -- the first one indicated no autopsy had been performed -- the coroner's office refused.
The government contends that Mr. Dumont was autopsied at Carlow University as part of an educational program there in which they allege Dr. Wecht had an arrangement to provide unclaimed cadavers from the coroner's office in exchange for lab space.
In the letter to vital records, Mr. D'Alessandro wrote that he expected legal action because of what occurred.
"Mr. Dumont was not at any time a coroner's case, thus they had no jurisdiction in this matter, and crossed the line of legality," he wrote. "The autopsy was totally unauthorized, illegal, unnecessary, and, apparently, undercover, as they will not own up to it by issuing a death certificate, which I feel they are legally now obligated to do."
First Published January 31, 2008 12:00 am