Coroner as celebrity: After 50 years of death, Dr. Cyril Wecht looks back on life

By Ramit Plushnick-masti, AP
Monday, February 15, 2010

Death be proud: Cyril Wecht, the man in the morgue

PITTSBURGH — A door slams, and a snowy-haired man sweeps into the room at the back of a university garage, a sterile place of stainless steel sinks, a swaying hose and a metal table where a woman’s body lies, blood dripping from the back of her head.

The first thing the man talks about is not the corpse, but why he’s late.

“Ran out of gas, totally,” Cyril Wecht tells his longtime assistant, Joe Mancuso. And as spray from the hose whooshes over the dead body, he explains where he’s left the car. “So, we have to get a can or something. Do we have a can?”

“I’ve got a gas can at the house,” Mancuso responds.

Wecht turns. A scalpel is in one of his latex-gloved hands, poised over the woman’s body, which is covered with bruises. He speaks into a microphone. “Testing, testing: 1-2-3-4,” he says, his eyes drifting from her toes to the top of her auburn head.

“What a shame,” he says, now fully focused.

The woman was involved in a car crash. Wecht is here to determine how she died.

He brings to the task, as to all things, an eccentric flair that has made him one of the most sought-after pathologists, one who played a part in many famous cases, a man whose personality helped turn a grim profession into a popular career choice and helped birth a generation of fictional medical examiners on crime shows from “CSI” to “NCIS.”

Cyril Wecht’s is a story of how, with the right personality in the right era, death can be a one-way ticket to fame.

Death is different today.

Well, not exactly. Death itself hasn’t changed. The pain we feel when a loved one dies is the same as it ever was. But never in human history have the mechanics of dying been such a fundamental part of popular culture, served up as entertainment for the fascination of millions.

Ever since 1976, when Jack Klugman gave life to the mulish Los Angeles coroner “Quincy,” medical examiners have been a staple of TV. Now, it seems, they’re everywhere — even to the point of being serial killers (Showtime’s “Dexter”).

And we don’t just watch death in ways our grandparents never did. We talk about it, too. Grief and how people die — their illnesses, their suffering, the spiritual journey we believe they are undertaking — is discussed not only at the dinner table but on tweets and Facebook status updates.

Wecht’s high-profile cases helped build the bond between death and pop culture. And now that bond, that TV-generated mystique, helps fill Wecht’s classrooms at Carlow University in Pittsburgh, where he teaches forensic science, and has gained a following for Duquesne University’s department of forensic science and law, an institute named after the pathologist himself.

To promote the art of autopsy — and promote himself along the way — Wecht has used the modern tools of both medicine and communication.

Just months ago, he appeared on “Larry King Live” to discuss Michael Jackson’s death even as he made the rounds of local stations to take up a matter closer to home. He lambasted U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan, who had dropped charges against him in a fraud and theft scandal that forced him to resign as the county coroner in Pittsburgh and cleaned out his life savings.

Now 78, Wecht began stirring the pot when he was a thirtysomething pathologist, fresh out of medical and law school. President John F. Kennedy had just been assassinated, and Wecht was asked to review the Warren Commission’s findings.

He declared the investigation “absolute nonsense,” and its single-bullet theory “an asinine, pseudoscientific sham at best.” Director Oliver Stone’s magic-bullet courtroom scene in the film “JFK” was based on how Wecht has countless times depicted the bullet’s purported path.

And it was Wecht’s contention that Elvis Presley had died of a deadly mix of prescription drugs, rather than heart disease, that led authorities to reopen the probe, though the cause of death never officially changed.

In Pittsburgh, he became known more for his whiplash tongue. Once he reprimanded a newly appointed county spokesman for calling a news conference to discuss an inmate’s death before an autopsy had been conducted.

“Death doesn’t come to Allegheny County,” he told the young man, “till I say it does.”

The only child of immigrant coal-town grocers, Wecht says his earliest memories involve visiting slaughterhouses with his father. His adolescent memories include sneaking into the morgue near his home and peeking at the bodies.

Just after medical school, when Wecht was completing his military service at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, he met a Norwegian woman named Sigrid. Their first date came hours after he had fallen from a horse and torn up his face on a gravel road.

“This is not good,” she thought as she munched on Mexican food and gazed at a 30-year-old man who, to her 21-year-old eyes, already seemed old.

A year later, they began what has been a nearly half-century marriage, producing four children.

Along the way, Wecht has served twice as Pittsburgh’s elected coroner, has performed 17,000 autopsies and consulted on thousands of others.

Some accuse him of enjoying the media spotlight too much, of arrogance and egotism and an unchecked temper.

A columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Brian O’Neill, wrote recently of Wecht’s penchant for making enemies: “He has made them gleefully, shamelessly, recklessly, aggressively and often tastelessly. He writes letters like a man standing astride twin steeds, Vanity and Venom.”

Wecht, predictably, is unswayed by such attitudes. “Most of what people call ‘diplomacy, tactfulness, sensitivity,’” — here his voice takes on a nyah-nyah cadence — “much of that … is disingenuous.” (And that “…” stands for something unprintable here.)

His adversarial nature, he realizes, has damaged him. “With all that I’ve achieved,” he says, “if I had had maybe more restraint, more patience, more tolerance, then I probably would have maybe achieved more.”

“I’ll never know,” he adds. “But I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Here is what most of the people who look at Wecht don’t see:

—a man who answers every letter — including missives from hundreds of convicts.

—an educator and mentor willing to talk to college and high school students on the phone at night.

—a workaholic who chairs the world’s largest group of forensic scientists and who is wrapping up his 10th book.

Few see how his work and penchant for controversy have affected his family.

His wife, while never blaming him, is bitter over the recently-ended legal battle with Buchanan. She is angry over the sums that went to pay lawyers.

The federal prosecutor had charged Wecht with fraud and theft, accusing him of using his public office to benefit his multimillion dollar private practice. He denied it. And, in June, nearly five years after the charges were initially filed, after one deadlocked jury and a new judge’s ruling that key evidence would be inadmissible in a new trial, Buchanan dropped the charges.

At a news conference, she said the pathologist had used “taxpayer dollars for private gain.”

“If I could have a do-over, I’d still bring the case. Even with the tremendous criticism that’s been dumped on this office, I still believe a crime was committed here,” she insisted.

Wecht’s struck back, saying the U.S. attorney had no shame.

“Is this the way justice is pursued in America? I think the record will speak for itself. As for her record, that will speak for itself too,” he said.

These days, the man who has baked notoriety into his entire existence spends some of his time musing about death’s evolution.

Is the spotlight the proper place for death? Should death be surrounded — even when it comes to a figure as public as the president or the King of Pop — by shouting, controversy and debate? Discussing death in this way, on the Internet and in public, can be demeaning, he says, diminishing the dead and trivializing the living.

Now he is arriving at an age where, once in a while, the idea of his own death creeps up.

He talks about people who suffer or become dependent on family, friends or doctors and may not even understand their own situations.

“I want to be alive when I die. Think about that,” Wecht says, describing the oblivious old age reached by some, defined by little more than bodily functions. “I mean, OK, what is life?”

At a traditional Sunday family lunch, at his home, Wecht leans over one of his 11 grandchildren. “You want ketchup, sweetie?” he asks, squeezing some onto her plate.

He shuffles back to his seat and savors the competing conversations, the children’s laughter. Glancing at his brood, Wecht lifts his knife. Steady of hand, sure of purpose, he cuts into a sausage.

(This version CORRECTS Wecht’s view of Presley death and delete outdated reference to possible run for governor)

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