'Wecht details' described to jury
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The chief forensic investigator for the Allegheny County medical examiner's office once had to go on a hot dog run to Giant Eagle because wieners for a political event for Dr. Cyril H. Wecht's son didn't arrive on time.
Edward Strimlan also told the jury on the opening day of Dr. Wecht's federal criminal trial yesterday that he and other deputy coroners often had to participate in what they called "Wecht details" that were regularly recorded in Allegheny County logbooks.
Among the errands Mr. Strimlan participated in were chauffeuring his boss's family around while he was on duty and in uniform, including driving to the airport to get the group off on their winter vacations.
Mr. Strimlan, who joined the office in 1990, spent the majority of his two hours on the stand describing the many "Wecht details" he and others participated in -- not only for Dr. Wecht and his family, but for the coroner's administrative assistants as well.
They included acting as a courier service with Dr. Wecht's mail and newspapers, driving his secretary home to Wexford in bad weather, picking up theater tickets, and driving his son, a neuro-surgeon on staff with the Steelers, to home games.
When asked how often he did such errands, Mr. Strimlan said, "The frequency was more like, how many a day?" He referred to Dr. Wecht's office in the coroner's facilities as "Wecht World."
In one instance, Mr. Strimlan said he drove Dr. Wecht's wife, Sigrid, to a playhouse on the South Side, then he returned to Oxford Centre to pick up Dr. Wecht and his son, David, then drove them back to the South Side, as well.
There, he waited for David Wecht for 45 minutes, then returned him to Oxford Centre, Mr. Strimlan said.
"I did it because I was told to," he testified.
Mr. Strimlan also described a scene from the period when David Wecht was running for county prothonotary and having a fund-raiser at Three Rivers Stadium. [Note: David N. Wecht did not run for prothonotary. Click here to correction/clairification.]
Hot dogs for the event didn't arrive on time, and Mr. Strimlan was told to go to Giant Eagle and buy as many as he could to take to a gate there.
He was later reimbursed with a check filled out by one of Dr. Wecht's administrative assistants.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen S. Stallings, who delivered the government's opening statements, said the "Wecht details" were just one example of how the world-renowned forensic pathologist used county resources for his own personal gain.
"In plain English, what he did, is stole," Mr. Stallings said, "and for the same reason people have stolen for thousands of years. To make more money, because he thought he could get away with it."
In his 41-minute opening, Mr. Stallings outlined other allegations, as well, including that Dr. Wecht took at least 16 unclaimed bodies from the county morgue and provided them to Carlow University in exchange for use of the school's anatomy lab; and that he defrauded his private clients by inflating the prices they paid for his travel.
"He sent fake receipts," Mr. Stallings said.
He used as an example an invoice for a June 2004 trip to Philadelphia. That bill, supposedly from a travel agency that went out of business years earlier, showed that Dr. Wecht paid $604.70 in round-trip airfare from Pittsburgh, as well as a $90 limousine charge to and from the airport.
In reality, Mr. Stallings said, Dr. Wecht paid $273.70 for that flight.
"He did this again, and again, and again."
But lead defense attorney Jerry McDevitt characterized the discrepancy in airfare as nothing more than "routine billing errors."
"Not one of his private clients ever complained to him or the government," Mr. McDevitt said. "Every one of those district attorneys continued to hire him -- to this day."
The veteran defense lawyer told the jurors to separate out the "big lies from the small truths."
"He is innocent of having criminal intent of any of the acts [Mr. Stallings] just told you," Mr. McDevitt said.
He told the jurors they would not hear anything about Dr. Wecht taking bribes or kickbacks.
And he characterized the "go-fer" work performed by deputy coroners as "favors" for Dr. Wecht and his family.
"Did any of it truly affect the function of the office?" Mr. McDevitt asked the jury to consider. "Or was it a man getting a little bit of help?"
Addressing the wire fraud charges, Mr. McDevitt attempted to minimize them by saying that the county was billed a total of just $3.31 for the 24 faxes sent regarding Dr. Wecht's private business between 2002 and 2005.
The improper mileage charges billed to outside counties for private work, Mr. McDevitt said, totaled $141.19.
"Ask yourself, is the intent here to rip off the people of Allegheny County," he instructed the jury. "For decades, this man has been a unique part of the fabric of this city, this county, this state and this country."
He congratulated Dr. Wecht for starting the forensics program at Carlow, for which he was never paid, and said his client had the discretion to donate the unclaimed bodies at the morgue for teaching purposed.
"Those bodies are being used for training and education of our children," he said, adding that the FBI failed to interview the president of Carlow about the agreement in place regarding the lab space before charges were brought against Dr. Wecht.
Mr. McDevitt peppered his opening with references to Dr. Wecht's "brilliance," his work ethic and his reputation as one of the foremost forensic pathologists in the world. He also lauded Dr. Wecht and his family for all of their charitable efforts in the community.
Mr. McDevitt also tried to outline for the jury what he saw as weaknesses in the prosecution's case.
But nearly every time he raised one, Mr. Stallings cut him off with an objection. Out of seven, all but one objection was sustained by U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab.
Despite his frustration, Mr. McDevitt continued to try to get his message to the jury.
"When you hear all the evidence in this case ... and we're going to try to get it to you ... Dr. Wecht was probably the most competent public official we've ever had in this county," Mr. McDevitt said.
Correction/Clarification: (Published Jan. 30, 2008) David N. Wecht, son of former Coroner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, did not run for prothonotary of Allegheny County. A witness in Cyril Wecht's trial in U.S. District Court erroneously referred to such a campaign and his remarks were reported in this article as published Jan. 29, 2008.
First Published January 29, 2008 12:00 am