Dr. Cyril Wecht: I See Dead People
Growing up, we excitedly gathered around the miraculous television box weekly for shows such as Perry Mason, The Fugitive, Mission: Impossible, Hawaii Five-O, Columbo, Kojak, Quincy M.E. and Charlie’s Angels, among others. My particular interest in Charlie’s Angels was self-evident, but what explains the runaway success of the others? Here’s my speculation: Each of these shows had compelling lead characters, challenging puzzles for the audience to piece together, and in doing so, murder mysteries to be solved. We all felt we’d participated in solving the crime. We were also unwittingly viewing the dawn of the enduring American genre, the Crime Drama.
The person you’re about to meet has been “a compelling lead character” in numerous real life crime dramas and is otherwise a most fascinating man. Upon meeting, two things jumped out immediately. One, it’s evident he hasn’t wasted even a minute of his fruitful 87 years. Two, his numerous advanced trainings, licenses, skill sets and experiences, along with his extraordinary work ethic, has made him into one of the top experts in his field across the globe.
Cyril Wecht has been many things, as attested to by his ‘CV’ (a.k.a. resume). Upon its receipt, I decided to casually peruse it while catching up on a Sunday afternoon of NFL football. Big mistake. The document is a digitally-heavy, jam-packed 32 pages long. Jeez, mine is 3.2 pages, and that’s only because I’ve fluffed it up quite a bit. His was both a humbling and fascinating read. Here’s the crux of what I learned:
Dr. Wecht is primarily known across the world as a preeminent forensic pathologist. What is that you ask? Also called a coroner, he is the person charged with the difficult, rather morbid task of medically determining both how, and why, a human being has died. Oftentimes called in because of questionable circumstances surrounding the death, experts of his rare stature are always connected to the most fantastic, celebrity-related cases of our lifetimes. From Dr. Wecht’s vast catalog of experiences has come this immutable tenet, “There is truth in how you die, the body is evidence, the crime scene is evidence.”
Just exactly how did this non-descript boy from the ‘Hill District’ of Pittsburgh, Pa. become one of the very few “go-to” guys in the celebrity coroner business? After a thorough examination, here’s the evidence we’ve discerned:
Wecht recalls a “normal, lower-middle class upbringing” during the Depression years. His parents owned a “mom and pop” grocery store which served a diverse base of neighbors including African Americans and recent Italian, Irish and Jewish immigrants. He describes his neighborhood as “quiet, safe, open, free, and having provided for a good and pleasant life.” He recalls coupons, rations and other limitations, and there were sections of “tent cities” for the impoverished, but due to both industry and good luck, his family never lacked the basics.
He attended high school during the final years of World War II. So far we have The Great Depression and World War II– talk about “formative years.” Besides his academic and work-related responsibilities, young Wecht became proficient with the violin and nearly pursued the symphony as a career. Alas, as his ‘CV’ began to mushroom and his leisure time concurrently shrank, he put down his instrument in favor of others less melodious.
His college days weren’t nearly as impressive, if you ask me. After all, it took him an entire decade to finally graduate. In that protracted time, he only achieved a B.S. (Cum Laude) from the University of Pittsburgh and advanced degrees in both medicine and law concurrently from the Universities of Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Maryland.
While in school he took leadership positions at organizations as varied as student congress, debate, drama, orchestra and the YMCA, and he won numerous scholarships and awards along the way. Then, he spent two years as a pathologist in the Air Force to complete his draft deferment. So what? Today, we’d refer to him as a “slacker.” I’m wondering what he did with all his spare time. Here’s one answer, while in the Air Force he met the love of his life (besides blood and guts), Sigrid, who would become his future wife.
I asked Dr. Wecht what drove him down such an arduous academic path. “It seemed natural,” he replied, “I really didn’t think about it. That’s what we did back then, we worked as hard as we could.” But why both medicine and law, I followed, what was the connection? “I decided along the way to pursue medical legal matters,” came his response, “that’s where my interests were and both backgrounds were important.”
To the question of whether he knew his chosen field would soon explode in popularity with the American public, he answered, “No, it never occurred to me. I had no way of knowing or predicting. I knew people were interested when I spoke about the subject, but nothing like this.”
“People were interested” is perhaps the understatement of a lifetime. I then asked him how it all started, what was the watershed event that propelled his career? His reply came automatically, “it’s really simple, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Everything else flowed from there.”
Just graduated from law school, Wecht joined a large chorus challenging the Warren Commission’s conclusions regarding the heartbreaking murder of our beloved president. But as he often did, he took it a step further. He wrote a controversial paper in 1965 calling the assassination “a coup.”
“In a large American city, in broad daylight, we all witnessed the overthrow of the American government.”
He stands by these words today.
A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Decade
I came to realize that there was in most cases a political common denominator. Be it JFK, RFK, MLK, Marilyn Monroe and many other cases. It’s about how the facts get manipulated by the politicians, by some governmental agencies, and it’s worth noting. The main point I wish to make is this:We as Americans are very smug, very chauvinistic, very arrogant. It’s one thing to be proud of who we are. I’m a grateful American and I applaud that. But, it’s another thing entirely to be blind, to not recognize that we have in our government, and it’s across all ideologies and party lines, many of the same subterfuges that go on in any number of countries around the world. Ours may not be as blatant, not as vile and vicious, not as obvious. They’re not picking people up off the streets and throwing them in concentration camps, or just eliminating them. But in terms of what our government can do, and does do, in terms of the manipulation, the lies, the deceit, the cover-ups, it is all there. And it’s not necessarily limited to major political assassinations at the national level, it’s more of an everyday matter. I just want you to keep this in mind.” – Dr. Cyril Wecht
The first non-government-related pathologist given access to the JFK autopsy material in the National Archive, in 1972, was Dr. Cyril Wecht. It made him even more certain there had been at least a public obfuscation of the facts by the Warren Commission, if not a full-blown cover-up. To the charge that he was fueling conspiratorial lunacy across the country with statements like the above, he counters, “If 65% to 85% of the American public does not believe the Warren Commission, then who’s dealing in conspiracy?”
In November 1963, just graduated from law school, Dr. Wecht knew exactly who the top forensic scientists in the country were and later got to know them very well. “Once they’d heard the terrible news,” he reports, “their bags were packed expecting to receive the call any minute to make their way to Dallas.” Their phones never rang.
“Instead,” continues Wecht, “the government called in two inexperienced naval pathologists. It was totally absurd. They had never performed a gunshot wound autopsy in their entire careers. It was like having medical students attempting complicated heart surgery. Patently ridiculous.”
Wecht’s forensic conclusions are never formed by circumstantial evidence. Instead, they’re all based in the scientific data. His JFK case rests in what’s been called the ‘single bullet’ theory, or, “the magic bullet.” This was the second of three bullets fired, per the official record, that entered and exited the president’s body three times (back, front, wrist, thigh) before also seriously wounding Governor Connally sitting to his front in the fateful limousine. One bullet, seven wounds. “If that theory fails,” he says, “then there must have been a second shooter.” And there’s no doubt in his mind, scientifically, that it’s a failed theory. There was one other little thing. Dr. Wecht discovered that the president’s brain went missing. The significance? “The brain could have proved the shots were fired from two directions, so it was conveniently disposed of.”
What about the president’s brother, New York Senator Robert Kennedy, who when running for president five years later was also felled by an assassin’s bullet? “It’s forensically very simple,” says Wecht, “RFK’s head wound was inflicted from one to one-and-a-half inches away. The problem is the convicted shooter, Sirhan Sirhan, wasn’t nearly that close to the Senator. It’s all there in the autopsy reports.” The harrowing event took place off-camera in a L.A. hotel’s narrow, crowded kitchen hallway with only the sound of the gunfire captured. Again, the government kept the investigation closed, internal, away from the scrutiny of the public eye.
1968 was a tragically busy year. Just two months earlier in the streets of Memphis, historic civil rights leader Martin Luther King was also gunned down. Dr. Wecht later conducted the autopsy on King’s convicted murderer, James Earl Ray, who had died in a Tennessee prison. As to the connection between these three audacious murders, here is Dr. Wecht’s take:
“From a broad political and philosophical perspective you just need to look at it objectively. JFK, MLK and RFK were joined together in fostering a new era in America, one of progressiveness. Certain people wanted them gone. I’m not saying it was the same people, or the same group of people, but it was the same kind of people. Dramatic change and reform throughout history has never come without conflict. What we witnessed here was anarchy, pure and simple.”
To begin the decade’s mad tumult, just a year before JFK’s assassination superstar actress, Marilyn Monroe, tragically died of a drug overdose. Her body was discovered in her Los Angeles home at the eternally youthful and glorious age of 36. It won’t surprise you to hear that Monroe’s death also registers on Dr. Wecht’s radar as highly suspicious. Not as to its cause, which was clearly a prescription drug overdose, but in the circumstances surrounding the tragedy.
First, the police botched the investigation. The housemaid called two doctors who each spent time at the scene before anyone called the police. The medical examiner wasn’t called in until the following morning. With the passage of time, rigor mortis sets in, the body temperature changes, the blood reveals less. There was no value to the criteria they found because too much time had passed. Second, the death certificate listed ‘probable’ suicide as the cause. I’ve never seen ‘probable’ listed on a death certificate. It either is, or is not, ‘suicide.’ It has to be one of three, ‘suicide,’ ‘accidental’ or ‘homicide.’ If it cannot be determined then the death certificate reads ‘undetermined.’ – Dr. Cyril Wecht
Dr. Wecht still leaves open the other possible causes, ‘accidental’ and ‘homicide.’ Accidental is a credible conclusion but who could possibly wish harm to iconic Norma Jean? One theory still active today is she was eliminated by supporters of the two political giants of the time, each with their own fierce motive of protecting their ascending careers. Protecting from what? That’s easy, from the risk of Marilyn exposing her concurrent dalliances with both of these married men. The two political giants? That’s also easy. John F. Kennedy, the president, and Robert F. Kennedy, his attorney general. “It’s pure conjecture,” says Wecht, “but it cannot be ruled out. Only ‘probable’ suicide is incredulous.”
My, my, my. Powerful lives and suspicious deaths do make for strange bedfellows, do they not?
The summer of 1969 closed out the “mad, mad decade” in an appropriately eerie and conflicted manner. While the generation of love and peace were congregating at Max Yasgur’s farm in Woodstock, New York, it wasn’t so loving and peaceful elsewhere.
Sharing the headlines that summer were two gruesome incidents again involving high profile politicians and celebrities. On the east coast, literally, was the death of 29-year-old political assistant, Mary Jo Kopechne, muddied by the suspicious abandonment of the accident scene by her escort and married boss, Senator Ted Kennedy. Correct. He of the very same powerful political family and with the same possible fierce motive as his two brothers before him.
Charges of another Kennedy-related political cover-up still resound all these years later. Forensic analysis at the scene was lacking, and suspiciously, no autopsy was ordered. It was later determined that Kopechne may not have died from drowning but instead from suffocation in the horrible hours after Kennedy’s car plunged into the murky Chappaquiddick waters. Many questions remain unresolved. Dr. Wecht testified later in a Boston courthouse in the attempt to have Kopechne’s body exhumed and a proper autopsy completed. It never was, which only helped fuel the conspiracy.
Three weeks later, on the opposite coast occurred the ghastly slaughter of the young and vibrant actress, Sharon Tate, and five others, including her soon-to-be-born child. Weeks of forensic analysis of the crime scene enabled the FBI to hunt down and capture the perpetrators of these bizarre and heinous acts, a drug-crazed, ‘Helter Skelter’ cult gang led by the insanity of Charles Manson. The forensic pathologist called in to investigate the gruesome circumstances? Dr. Cyril Wecht.
Where were you the night OJ’s white Bronco led the California Highway Patrol and the nation on a harrowing several-hour chase toward the Mexican border? Nearly every American living at the time can answer that question. Dr. Wecht knows where he was. He was packing his bags for Los Angeles.
Tales from the Morgue
It’s interesting how a decade can oftentimes be defined by certain strings of related events. The three decades following the “Mad Sixties” were illustrative of this as each seemed to have distinct and discernible themes, however dreadful they may have been.
Following the bizarre media circus of the ‘Manson Gang’ trials, the seventies became more about “celebrity murderers” than “murdered celebrities.” It appeared that “Crazy Charlie” was an inspirational figure to more than a few “brothers-in-arms” hoping to share his spotlight. In chronological order, this list of infamy included Zodiac Killer, John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz, Hillside Strangler, and the notorious cult leader, Jim Jones, who orchestrated the biggest mass murder-suicide in our history. Who needed fictional crime dramas when these early versions of “reality television” were even more gruesome and enrapturing?
Perhaps the most peculiar “celebrity-related” event of the seventies occurred in 1974 when heiress, Patty Hearst, was abducted from her L.A. apartment and physically violated by a college campus-grown terrorist group called Symbionese Liberation Army. She then apparently joined their cause, visibly participating in a bank robbery and other nefarious activities. She was with the cult when they were captured after a nineteen-month-long hunt. Her behavior was later dubbed ‘Hearst syndrome,’ after the related ‘Stockholm’ condition. Even Hollywood couldn’t outdo this.
The most shocking celebrity deaths in the seventies came in an early flurry when increasingly lethal drug overdoses took the lives of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison. In 1977, the world was shocked and distraught at losing the iconic, Elvis Presley, and again in 1980 when a crazed person shot dead the former Beatle, John Lennon, on his adopted streets of Manhattan, abruptly ending his dream of “giving peace a chance.”
In the eighties our focus turned outward to the Middle East and the rise of global terrorism, including bouts of military attacks, hostage-taking, airport bombings and airliner hijackings. The nineties saw the notorious happenings shift back to America where numerous anti-government militias captured the headlines. Most prominent was the 1993 FBI siege on David Koresh’s fanatical cult, Branch Davidians,at their Ranch Apocalypsein Waco, Texas. It ended fifty-one days later in mass suicide when the compound burned to the ground killing seventy-five cult members. On the second anniversary of Waco, in 1995, in virulent protest of the government’s perceived abuse of power, Timothy McVeigh, Terry Nichols and other conspirators set off a massive truck bomb at an Oklahoma City federal building killing 168 innocents and injuring over 300.
As each of these dramatic and deadly events unfolded, forensic pathologist, Cyril Wecht, was close by and becoming more nationally-renowned and exceptionally occupied. Wecht had become one of the few ”must-call” coroners when criminal investigations were needed, and especially when blunt, honest opinions were required. When he wasn’t performing hundreds of relatively mundane autopsies on regular folks as the elected coroner of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, he was traveling the country to examine crime scenes and corpses, and opine in legal cases involving suspicious or otherwise controversial deaths.
Wecht became involved in the 1974 Hearst-SLA ordeal when called in by L.A. Chief Medical Examiner, Tom Noguchi, and was hired in 1979 by ABC’s 20/20 to review evidence in the death of Elvis.
What the world has been told about Elvis’ death is “totally false,” he concluded. Elvis died neither of heart disease nor a bowel blockage. “Not a chance,” says Wecht, “it was an illegal autopsy and a total cover-up to protect his image.” He went on to say a toxicology report was never ordered, which would have proven Elvis had eleven depressants in his system, all prescribed. “Elvis died of ‘acute combined drug toxicity’,” Wecht says. “His doctor gave him anything he wanted, day and night. That’s the crime.”
Dr. Wecht was also called in to examine the body of David Koresh and two of his top Davidian cult associates immediately after the Waco fire. He is on the record with strong opinions about this case.
For those who wish to delve in deeper to this and many other cases from the fascinating perspective inside the morgue, we refer you to the eleven bookshe’s authored for general audiences, including, Tales From The Morgue, which we borrowed for our title, Mortal Evidence: The Forensics Behind Nine Shocking Cases, and the recently re-released, Cause of Death.There are also reams of periodicals available across the internet.
With thirty years of his pathology career already in the books, it would be the two highest-profile cases of the nineties which would seal Dr. Wecht’s international fame. In 1994, he was watching the same fantastical white Bronco chase scene as we all were, but he was doing so while hurriedly packing his travel bag for the flight to L.A.
He’s been asked hundreds of times, “did O.J. do it?” Here’s his definitive answer. “Yes, he did, but he could not have done it alone. He had help. There was so much evidence at that terrible scene in so many different places. It’s an obvious conclusion to draw.”
Wecht was called in to the scene by his long-time friend, legendary attorney F. Lee Bailey. Curiously, he found that the medical examiner wasn’t allowed on the crime scene until at least eight hours after the victim’s bodies were found. This is long after the forensic evidence begins to fade (e.g. Marilyn’s case). “By then,” says Wecht, “police had walked all over the area and may have disturbed some evidence. The forensics were horribly botched,” he continued, “there were drops of blood on Nicole’s back, for instance, that were not even tested. They were ignored. What else did they miss?”
The second improbable case came just two years later when on Christmas Day in 1996, little JonBenet Ramsey disappeared from her Boulder, Colorado home with only a ransom note left behind. Her body was suspiciously found in the basement of the home the next day, beginning the storm of accusations which have never abated. No one has ever been formally charged in the murder and the contentious investigation remains open twenty-three years later.
In his book covering the incident, Dr. Wecht has long-ago formed the opinion that there was no “unexplained third party” present at the crime scene. The DNA evidence has supported his conclusion. So, it was an inside job, but by who? “JonBenet’s body showed clear evidence of sexual misconduct,” says Wecht, “and while it’s conjecture, I believe her father was guilty of both the deviant misconduct and unintentionally killing his daughter.”
But the controversy continues. Her older brother, Burke, has recently denied accusations made on a CBS special naming him the murderer and has filed a $750 million suit against both the network and the doctor making the accusation. For more insight on this and dozens of other provocative cases over the past six decades, we again point you to Dr. Wecht’s vast archival library.
In the quarter-century since O.J. and JonBenet, Dr. Wecht has never slowed down for a moment. With tens of thousands of autopsies and consultations notched in his belt, he’s also been a teacher, lecturer, politician, author, editor and has either been featured in or technically-consulted to notable, award-winning films and documentaries including Brothers-Keepers, Soaked in Bleach, JFK, and Concussion.
In his spare time, he’s extended his forensics commentary to such matters as the RMS Titanic tragedy, the football concussion debate, sexual assault, police-related deaths and minorities, divorce and custody cases, product liability, computer and cyber-crimes, social media, medical and recreational cannabis, end-of-life decisions, human trafficking, child abuse, shaken baby syndrome, the proper role of nursing experts, DUI, opioid abuse, financial and mortgage fraud, fracking, terrorism, and the efficacy of DNA use in solving crimes.
In other words, if you have a question about nearly anything, give this brilliant, engaged man a jingle for his thoughtful and transparent opinions.
In closing, I asked Dr. Wecht how he is feeling about things now, at the age of 87, and here was his candid answer:
I don’t like getting old and I don’t want to die, because of my family. I will miss each of them terribly. But, we all get old, we all die. I’m so grateful I lived when I did, in these incredible times. I do not like what has happened to our society one bit. I’m so grateful to have grown up when I did, before the proliferation of drugs, sex, guns, computers, all of it. Life was better when it was simpler. People were out in the world with other people, they were more respectful and gracious.
We at Throomershave nothing but respect for this most gracious and historic man, and we are grateful for his allowing us a visit inside his morgue. It has been our distinct pleasure, morbidly speaking.
To hear more of Dr Wecht’s current thoughts, please click here to read his responses to Throomers 7 Questions.