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Fraud, theft trial of celebrity coroner begins

A coroner used government employees as secretaries, gofers and chauffeurs while working for a Pennsylvania county,   prosecutors said Monday at the start of his fraud and theft trial.
Celebrity Pathologist Trial
Former Allegheny County coroner Cyril Wecht leaves the courthouse in Pittsburgh on Monday during a break in his trial.Don Wright / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Celebrity pathologist Cyril Wecht used government employees as secretaries, gofers and chauffeurs for himself and his private business while working as Allegheny County’s medical examiner and coroner, prosecutors said Monday at the start of Wecht’s trial.

Wecht, 76, is charged with 41 counts, including wire fraud, mail fraud and theft. He has denied wrongdoing, and his attorneys have maintained that the charges are politically motivated.

“In plain English, what he did was he stole, and he did it for the same reasons people have stolen for thousands of years: so he could make more money and because he thought he could get away with it,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Stallings said.

Wecht’s attorneys argue that the charges are either false or amount to minor infractions, such as improper use of fax machines.

“We will prove to you he is the best bargain Allegheny County has ever had,” defense attorney Jerry McDevitt said.

Elvis, JonBenet cases
Wecht is known for sometimes provocative opinions on high-profile cases including the deaths of Elvis Presley, JonBenet Ramsey and others. His examinations in those cases stem from his private practice, which prosecutors say grossed nearly $9 million from 1997 through 2004.

Stallings said Wecht conducted only a handful of autopsies for Allegheny County as coroner from 1996 until he resigned when he was indicted in January 2006. He made about $64,000 a year from the county, but conducted about 300 autopsies a year for his private practice.

That, Stallings said, wasn’t a crime. But how Wecht managed to run his private business was — including using at least 16 cadavers from the county morgue to obtain free lab space at Carlow College.

McDevitt denied that Wecht did anything other than establish a prestigious autopsy program at Carlow at the invitation of its former president. He added that Wecht donated only unclaimed cadavers to the college.

The program was designed to let Carlow “watch the master” at his craft, McDevitt said. “This man was ‘CSI’ long before any of us ever heard about it,” McDevitt said.

A funeral director will testify that he was given a false death certificate for a man he buried that said no autopsy was conducted, Stallings said. Similar things happened to other morgue bodies, he said.

Wecht also used county-employed administrative assistants as “bookkeepers, schedulers, to handle correspondence and the intake of new clients” for Wecht’s private practice, Stallings said.

McDevitt argued that Wecht’s private clients never complained about their bills and would have happily paid more than he charged them.

Wecht also used his deputy coroners as private “couriers” and “gofers” and chauffeurs for himself and his family to political and sporting events, Stallings said. Anyone who complained was threatened with reprisals, Stallings said.

Political work alleged
Dr. Edward Strimlan, a deputy coroner under Wecht who was the prosecutors’ first witness, said he was told to buy hot dogs for a political promotion outside a Pittsburgh Pirates game when Wecht’s son was running for a county office.

Strimlan said he bought the franks, delivered them to the ballpark and drove back to the office, all while on duty.

Wecht remains a consultant, pundit and expert on high-profile cases. He also conducts autopsies for hire in several Pennsylvania counties.

Even while under indictment, he has consulted on the death of Anna Nicole Smith’s son Daniel, the death of the New York City public advocate’s relative at the Phoenix airport, and the reported suicide of the first black mayor-elect in the mostly white town of Westlake, La.