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Cyril Wecht's next big case might be his own

By Harriet Ryan
Court TV
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(COURT TV) -- For Cyril Wecht, arguably the country's most famous forensic pathologist, the last few weeks have been busy.

When a teacher in Thailand confessed to murdering JonBenet Ramsey, Wecht, who co-authored a book entitled "Who Killed JonBenet Ramsey?", was a sought-after interview.

A few weeks later, Anna Nicole Smith hired Wecht to perform a second autopsy on her 20-year-old son, who had died mysteriously in the Bahamas.

Wecht's involvement in the sensational case made headlines around the world, as did his conclusion that there were no signs of foul play. He explained his scientific findings in a spate of interviews with news outlets grateful for inside information from a respected, well-known source.

"Thanks, Cyril, we'll be calling on you again as always," Larry King said at the end of an interview on his CNN show Monday, adding, "He's one of the best, Dr. Cyril Wecht."

The case preoccupying Wecht during these interviews, however, was almost certainly not Ramsey or Smith or any of the dozens of notorious deaths that have made the physician a staple of the cable news circuit. Wecht's worries were likely closer to home.

He is scheduled to go on trial next month in federal court in Pittsburgh on a raft of fraud and theft charges which, if proven, would spell an ignoble end to an exceptional career.

JFK, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis

Wecht has worked on, written about or offered news analyses of nearly every noteworthy death investigation in the last 40 years, from the re-examination of the Kennedy assassination to the deaths of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Vince Foster and Kurt Cobain to the O.J. Simpson trial.

If convicted, Wecht, 75, faces the possibility of losing his medical license and spending years, if not the rest of his life, in prison.

"Dr. Wecht's livelihood and reputation depend upon the successful defense of these charges," his lawyers wrote in court papers earlier this year.

The case is slated to begin October 11, but may be delayed depending on the actions of a federal appellate court. That court is to decide several issues arising from a surprisingly bitter and contentious run-up to the trial, including a defense attempt to remove the trial judge for bias against Wecht.

The 84-count indictment returned by a grand jury last February accuses him of wire fraud, mail fraud and theft. Prosecutors allege Wecht cheated both the citizens of Pittsburgh's Allegheny County, where he served as coroner for 20 years, and the clients of his lucrative private forensic consulting company.

Wecht maintains his innocence, and his legal team, which is led by former U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, has said he is the target of a district attorney with a personal vendetta.

Although the case lacks the glamour of many of the stories Wecht is known for investigating, it is intriguing in its own way.

Rich man accused of petty thefts

Wecht is a rich man accused of stealing small sums of money, sometimes in penny increments, from a job that, financially, he did not need.

His consulting business grossed about a million dollars annually. His salary at the coroner's office, about $60,000, was perhaps a third of the going rate for a metropolitan pathologist and more honorarium than source of income.

"He was the best bargain Allegheny County ever had," said defense lawyer Jerry McDevitt, of the position Wecht resigned in January after his indictment.

Still, prosecutors allege that, whatever his means, Wecht schemed to make more money. Over a period of nine years, prosecutors say, Wecht directed his employees at the coroner's office to spend "substantial portions of their time while on duty" performing tasks related to his private consulting business, Cyril H. Wecht and Pathology Associates.

This side business handled everything from his freelance coroner work in rural counties in western Pennsylvania to his testimony at high-profile trials to speaking engagements at professional conferences to media appearances.

According to prosecutors, Wecht's secretarial staff routinely typed letters, took phone calls and faxed reports about his private business. Deputy coroners allegedly chauffeured Wecht in county cars to appointments related to consulting work.

He is accused of dispatching county employees to do more mundane tasks, including walking the family dog, hauling his trash and buying him personal items, including tennis balls and "nostril swimming plugs," according to the indictment.

Prosecutors also claim he used county facilities to examine brain and lung tissue from his private work as a paid expert.

In perhaps the most disturbing allegation, Wecht is accused of trading corpses from unclaimed bodies from the morgue to Carlow College, a Catholic women's school where he had set up a forensic training program, in exchange for lab space to work on his private cases.

Alleged victims include Scott Peterson

Prosecutors claim that he was also bilking dozens of private clients by inflating his travel costs. According to the indictment, Wecht booked cheap flights to meet clients or testify in trials and then submitted bills listing more expensive flights on letterhead from a defunct travel agency.

He also allegedly assessed out-of-state lawyers an "airport limousine" fee and local district attorneys mileage charges, even though a deputy coroner was driving him to and from the airport in a county car.

Court records indicate that the alleged victims of the travel scams include convicted killer Scott Peterson and Jayson Williams, the NBA star who shot a chauffeur in his mansion. Wecht consulted on the defenses of both men.

In Pittsburgh, where he was born and raised, Wecht is a source of civic pride to many people. He earned his medical degree from the University of Pittsburgh and got a law degree while in medical residency. Duquesne University named its forensic institute after him.

Wecht rose to national prominence without leaving the city. He and his wife of 44 years, Sigrid, still live there, as do their four children.

The recent charges are not his first clash with authorities, however. In 1980, when he had been coroner for a decade, the district attorney prosecuted Wecht for theft for having county employees do private work in the county morgue.

A jury acquitted Wecht, but he left the office and the county sued him in civil court for compensation. They reached a monetary settlement, but Wecht did not admit wrongdoing. In 1996, he returned to the coroner post.

Wecht's defense has acknowledged the possibility of "accounting irregularities," but his lawyers insist there was no nefarious scheme.

Hometown feud

In court papers, his lawyers have charged that the federal prosecution is the climax of a long-simmering feud with the county district attorney, Stephen Zappala.

According to the defense, the district attorney was livid when Wecht classified the death of an unarmed man at the hands of police as a homicide. The district attorney said it was his call alone and refused to file charges.

The dead man's family later retained Wecht as a paid expert in a civil suit, which the county settled out of court.

"Dr. Wecht now stands charged in the twilight of his career of rendering dishonest services to the citizens of Allegheny County, ironically because in fact he refused to render dishonest services to the county to keep political peace with" Zappala, his defense charged in court papers filed last spring.

Zappala's office did not immediately comment.

Wecht's lawyers are seeking to remove U.S. District Judge Arthur Schwab, who is to preside over the month-long case, for what they call "uncommon hostility toward the defense."

In the meantime, Wecht has continued performing autopsies in neighboring counties and commenting on cases in the news. Unfailingly, he offers articulate assessments that come off as erudite and often tantalizing.

"Dr. Wecht likes to talk about good things, which is the work he's doing, and that's what he's going to concentrate on," McDevitt said this week. "He's placed his fate in the hands of his lawyers."

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