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Coroner accused of trading bodies for lab space

A nationally renowned medical examiner who consulted in the deaths of Elvis Presley and JonBenet Ramsey was indicted Friday on federal charges of using county employees to campaign for him and handle his private lab work.
Cyril Wecht, seen in 2002, consulted in the deaths of Elvis Presley, JonBenet Ramsey and Katrina victims.Gary Tramontina / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Dr. Cyril Wecht, a nationally renowned medical examiner who consulted in the deaths of Elvis Presley and JonBenet Ramsey, was indicted Friday on federal charges of using county employees to campaign for him and handle his private lab work.

The indictment also accuses Wecht of trading unclaimed bodies stored by the county coroners office, which he headed, to a Pittsburgh university in exchange for use of a laboratory there for his private practice.

Wecht, 74, immediately resigned from his $105,000-a-year post as Allegheny County’s medical examiner after learning of the indictment.

The 84-count indictment accuses him of using county employees to run private errands and do work for his private practice between 1996 and December 2005.

U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan declined to estimate how much Wecht — who earned $4.65 million from his private practice from 1997 to 2004 — might have gained from the alleged abuse.

Wecht did not immediately return calls for comment. He has previously denied doing private work on county time during the decades he worked for the government.

Defense blames local politics
His defense team, including former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, issued a statement Friday denying the charges and blaming local politics.

The attorneys said the investigation began as a result of “fanciful allegations” by the county district attorney, with whom Wecht has feuded. They also questioned the U.S. attorney’s jurisdiction over his conduct in county government. The indictment said federal authorities have jurisdiction because the county uses some federal funds.

The federal investigation was well-known, and Wecht had earlier agreed to resign if indicted. His attorneys have said they met with federal prosecutors in recent weeks to try to negotiate a settlement.

The indictment charges Wecht with mail fraud, wire fraud, theft of honest services and theft from the county coroner’s office.

The university mentioned, Carlow University, was not accused of a crime. Buchanan said it was not clear how much university officials knew about the bodies, which had no known next-of-kin and were supposed to be stored by Wecht’s office.

Carlow officials issued a statement saying they were not aware of Wecht’s alleged violations and had provided space to Wecht as part of a course he taught on autopsy procedures.

“At no time did Carlow trade laboratory space for cadavers,” the statement said. “Carlow believed that Dr. Wecht was acting lawfully and that the autopsies performed were part of his private practice and had no relationship to his duties as county coroner.”

Employees indicted also
FBI agents seized computers and private files from Wecht’s office last spring, and three of his employees resigned shortly afterward. Two people who worked for him were indicted, one accused of performing private lab work on county time, the other of submitting false mileage reimbursement invoices for work done in neighboring counties.

In 1981, Wecht had been cleared of criminal charges alleging he used his staff to do private work on county time while coroner. He also faced a related civil court order to repay $252,000 in that case, and eventually paid back $200,000 after a decade of litigation.

Wecht gained fame in the 1960s when he criticized the Warren Commission’s findings in the President Kennedy assassination, and he has consulted on cases including the death of Laci Peterson.

In the months preceding the O.J. Simpson homicide trial in 1994, he became a frequent talk-show guest, conjecturing about the significance of blood samples and other evidence. His testimony at the trial of Claus von Bulow may have helped acquit the Rhode Island socialite of charges he tried to kill his wife.

Helped examine Katrina victims
Recently, he helped Louisiana officials conduct autopsies of the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Wecht was the elected county coroner from 1970 to 1980 and took office again in 1996. Earlier this month, he was appointed to a five-year term as the county’s first medical examiner after the coroner’s office was abolished under a government reform measure.

He is also an attorney and teaches at the University of Pittsburgh and Duquesne University.