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Wecht watch, March 6

Jason Cato
| Thursday, March 6, 2008

Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, a former Allegheny County coroner, is accused of using his public office for private gain and of defrauding clients of his private pathology consulting business. Go to the bottom of this blog for a list of witnesses in Wecht's federal trial.


3:14 p.m.

Trial has ended for the day. Sister Grace Ann Geibel will resume testifying Monday.


3:08 p.m.

Sister Grace Ann Geibel just testified that she was shocked to discover allegations were levied in the indictment against Wecht that he was swapping unclaimed bodies from the county morgue to Carlow University for free lab space to perform private autopsies.

When Wecht was indicted by a federal grand jury on Jan. 20, 2006, Geibel said she had not even been contacted by federal investigators or anyone from the office of U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan.

"I was just beside myself at the thought that that accusation would be made in an indictment, publicly in any way, when I had not been approached...," Geibel said. "I had no knowledge whatsoever. None."

Geibel has repeatedly testified that no such deal was ever made.

"It's not a cadaver-for-lab space scheme, it's an academic program?" defense attorney Jerry McDevitt asked.

"Absolutely," Geibel responded.


1:43 p.m.

Sister Grace Ann Geibel just testified on cross examination that she and Wecht never discussed a deal to trade cadavers from the county morgue in return for space at Carlow University to conduct private autopsies.

"During all of your discussions with Dr. Wecht did you ever discuss, even once, that he would get free lab space if he delivered unclaimed bodies from the county morgue?" defense attorney Jerry McDevitt asked.

"No," Geibel answered.

"Such a deal was never made, was it?" McDevitt asked.

"That is correct," Geibel said.

Wecht reached a deal with Carlow in 2003 to establish an autopsy training program at the Oakland school. For his involvement, which included allowing students to observe him perform private autopsies, Wecht was given lab space to work on private cases.

A contract was signed in May 2005.

An addendum to the original contract was made in October 2005, after Geibel retired.

Prosecutors claim Wecht performed autopsies at Carlow on unclaimed bodies from the county morgue as part of a deal for free lab space for his private business. They allege this is a part of the scheme in which Wecht used his public office for private gain.


12:21 p.m.

Court is on lunch break until 1:30 p.m. Wecht's attorneys will cross examine Sister Grace Ann Geibel once the trial resumes.


11:25 a.m

Now testifying is Sister Grace Ann Geibel, the former president of Carlow University who established an autopsy training program at the school with Wecht in 2003.

Ogrodnik earlier testified that the relationship between Wecht and the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science soured because Wecht refused to sign a formal lease agreement and procure liability insurance, and because of a dispute over monthly fees.

Ogrodnik said Wecht never fulfilled his promise to start an autopsy technician program at the East Liberty school, for which he was receiving a discounted monthly rent of $1,000 instead of paying $200 per autopsy.

Defense attorney Mark Rush got Ogrodnik to acknowledge that Wecht never tried to leverage the deal to send unclaimed bodies from the morgue to PIMS to be embalmed in exchange for free laboratory space.

The practice of sending unclaimed bodies to PIMS, which began in the 1930s, continued even after the school ended its 27-month association with Wecht's private business in May 2003.


10:20 a.m.

Court is on break until 10:40 a.m.


9:58 a.m.

Now testifying is Eugene Ogrodnik, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science. Unclaimed bodies from the county morgue were sent there to be embalmed as part of a training program.

Whitehouse testified that she did not have much money, so the coroner's office agreed to pay for Gray's cremation.

"They were just glad someone was claiming the body," Whitehouse said.

She said she never gave anyone permission to perform an autopsy on Gray, 43, who died on Oct. 3, 2004. Whitehouse said she claimed the body the following day and was told it was at the coroner's office.

"No, I did not give permission to anybody. I do not believe in the desecration of a body," Whitehouse testified. "I believe if you're going to have your remains used for that purpose, a person must give their own permission."

Gray will be buried this spring at Thayer Memorial Cemetery in Ridgway. Whitehouse said she is waiting until the trial is over to bury her niece.

"I need to put her to rest in peace," Whitehouse said.


9:36 a.m.

Testifying now is Barbara Whitehouse of Elk County. She is the aunt of Amy Gray, whose body was sent to Carlow University for an autopsy after her 2004 death.

Whitehouse learned of her niece's death after seeing an obituary while working at a newspaper in Elks County. She said she called the Allegheny County Coroner's Office and asked what would happen to Gray's body if she did not claim it.

"Their answer was not acceptable to me, so I said I was claiming the body. I wanted to bring her home to be buried with her parents," Whitehouse testified. "I was troubled by the fact that if I did not claim her body, she would be cremated and buried in a mass burial. That was not acceptable to me."

Kokales testified briefly about a package containing histology slides she received from Wecht Pathology in 2004. Kokales was representing a coal company in a black-lung case. Wecht was an expert for a widow suing the company.

Kokales testified that she received the package through the U.S. mail.

On cross examination, defense attorney Mark Rush had Kokales read the return address on the package. It was for Wecht's former private office on Wood Street.


9:19 a.m.

Testifying now is Estelle Kokales, an attorney who used Wecht's private pathology consulting firm in 2004.


9:11 a.m.

Schwab is disputing the trial day count by the news media. He is counting Tuesday's cancellation as a day of trial so by his arithmetic, today is Day 21.

Today is the 20th day of testimony since the trial began Jan. 28.

This week's snack from the judge to the jurors: Ginger snaps.


9:04 a.m.

Day 20 of Dr. Cyril H. Wecht's public corruption trial is underway.

Joe Dominick, the former chief deputy coroner under Wecht at the coroner's Office, is nearly finished testifying after four days on the stand.

The lawyers are now at a sidebar with Schwab arguing about the government's attempt to question Dominick about a letter left on the desk of a coroner's office secretary the day she testified before the grand jury investigating Wecht. The note, which has not been revealed to jurors, stated that the woman was a “snitch.”


Today's witnesses
  • Sister Grace Ann Geibel , the former president of Carlow University who established an autopsy training program at the school with Wecht in 2003
  • Eugene Ogrodnik , president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science
  • Barbara Whitehouse , the aunt of Amy Gray, whose body was sent to Carlow University for an autopsy after her 2004 death
  • Estelle Kokales , an attorney who used Wecht's private pathology consulting firm in 2004
  • Joe Dominick , the former chief deputy coroner under Wecht

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