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Elderly couples' bodies exhumed for autopsies

| Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2002, 12:00 p.m.

Housekeeper Judith Cameron offered the first clue that an elderly White Oak couple might not have died of natural causes.

Cameron collapsed in the home of Frederick "Ted" Gessner, 77, and Vivian Gessner, 76, on Oct. 8, where she went to clean after Ted Gessner died in late September, followed by his wife in early October.

Cameron went into the house on the day of Vivian Gessner's funeral and "fell right over."

"The house was so hot I pushed the doors and windows open," she said Monday.

Suspecting carbon monoxide, the Allegheny County Coroner's office yesterday exhumed the Gessners' bodies. The couple's deaths initially raised no suspicions, according to Allegheny County police. Their family physician ruled that they died from natural causes, and the coroner's office was never notified. But after Cameron's collapse, county police began an investigation, which eventually found a faulty vent on the couple's furnace and hot water heater.

Court documents requesting the exhumation from Mt. Vernon Cemetery in Elizabeth Township state that the cause and manner of the Gessners' deaths "may be of means other than natural causes." Chief Deputy Coroner Joseph Dominick declined to comment.

Barbara Gessner of Elizabeth, whose husband, Jerry, was Ted Gessner's brother, said the family "just wants to find out what happened."

The physician who signed the Gessners' death certificates, identified in court papers as Dr. Lawrence Ritchie, could not be reached for comment at his office in White Oak.

Cameron said yesterday was a wrenching day for those who knew and loved the elderly couple. Officials plan to re-bury the Gessners' bodies today, following the autopsies.

"It just brought it all back," said Cameron, 59, of West Mifflin.

The housekeeper said Vivian Gessner had told her a furnace repairman visited the house Sept. 28, the day before her husband died. Investigators said they have interviewed the repairman, whom they declined to identify, and have found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

"We found nothing at the scene to indicate there was any deliberate blockage of the venting," county homicide Sgt. Jeffrey Korczyk said yesterday. "Basically, this is to have a confirmation of the cause of death. The coroner's office decided to do this, and the family concurred."

Vivian Gessner awoke on the morning of Sept. 29 to find her husband dead on the floor. Although he exercised daily and played golf three times a week, Ted Gessner had heart problems for the past year, said Cameron, who with her husband took care of the couple's home and yard.

Vivian Gessner then went to stay with her son, Edward Bowles of Elizabeth, for a week, Cameron said.

Vivian Gessner returned home Oct. 5. A neighbor found her dead in the house the next day. Cameron went to clean the house Oct. 8 and collapsed.

Cameron's husband, who was cutting the grass, went in the house to get a key for a storage shed. He found his wife on the floor.

"If it hadn't been for (Judith), the family wouldn't have known (about the suspected carbon monoxide)," said Wallace Cameron, who pulled his wife out of the house. "I can't imagine what would have happened if any of the family had gone in there to clean out the house."

Police said measurements taken by firefighters showed the carbon monoxide level was 434 parts per million. That level is considered life-threatening after three hours of exposure, according to the county Health Department.

Judith Cameron said she was treated with oxygen at a local hospital.

The body of a person who has died from carbon monoxide poisoning would show no outward signs of the poisoning, said Dr. Fred Harchelroad, a toxicologist at Allegheny General Hospital, North Side.

“In someone who was very sick from carbon monoxide, the skin would appear to be very red,” he said. “That color will not be there when the heart stops pumping, though. There would be no signs specific to carbon monoxide poisoning once the patient is dead."

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