Friday, April 01, 2011

Wecht Spins Yarns With The Best Of Them On The South Side

In what was once considered “a past life,” I interviewed every important political and leader in Pittsburgh and sometimes Western Pennsylvania. On a few occasions they were even bigger. I interviewed then-Governor Tom Ridge on a golf course during an Arnold Palmer charity event. I was on the tarmac with then-President Bill Clinton.

Once upon a time I interviewed almost everyone of consequence in this region (Mario Lemieux and Fred Rogers notwithstanding) and maintained a fairly decent Rolodex. No list of contacts would be complete in Pittsburgh without Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, one-time Coroner, one-time Medical Examiner, one-time County Commissioner, frequent Democratic Committee kingpin, all-the-time lawyer and omnipresent roustabout.

I've admired brilliant people more than anyone, even more than the less-than-frequent cute girl who would find herself talking to me. I've been fortunate enough to talk with Dr. Wecht lots of times. During a conversation about a dozen years ago he complimented me on knowing a lot about his favorite subject: himself.

I've known about Dr. Wecht since the 1970's or 1980's when he was called in to investigate the deaths of (if I remember correctly) mummified babies a bizarre Gallitzen woman had in her attic at the time. Back then that was a story that garnered only local attention. Today it would be an international controversy.

Before that he was a dissenter of the “Magic Bullet” theory in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He's conducted more than 17,000 autopsies, theorized on countless others, and has been called in for almost every high-profile case there's been for more than 40 years.

It was his word I took when we heard that the jury came back with the O.J. Simpson decision. He was spot on with his conclusion.

In recent years he was targeted for wrongdoing by Mary Beth Buchanan, the U.S. Attorney under the G.W. Bush administration, who happens to be both a fellow California University of Pennsylvania alumnus and Republican. That's where most of our similarities end. I'm a part-time dink, while she's universally revered as a full-timer.

Anyhoo, Wecht was the guest of Tony Norman, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist, at Norman's monthly “Versus” confab. The “debate” is mostly a liberal love-fest (this was Norman's second go-'round, the first being with South Side City Councilman Bruce Kraus), but with Wecht in attendance, the discussion turned more CSI than politics.

Wecht, who recently turned 80 but looks 20 years younger, jumped into action when Norman asked if his JFK assassination theory was hogwash. Wecht effortlessly grabbed a couple from the audience, moved their chairs and in-detail re-enacted the “Magic Bullet” theory better than Jerry dissected the “Magic Loogie” on “Seinfeld.” Wecht's mind remains flawless, and humor almost vaudevillian. The audience of about 80 was enthralled.

Wecht's theories are plentiful. He says that Elvis died of a toxic drug overdose and not from heart disease, O.J. did it, but not by himself, and most remarkably (at least to me) one of Robert Kennedy's bodyguards, Thane Eugene Cesar, accidentally shot the Presidential candidate, and not only Sirhan Bishara Sirhan. He opined that Jon Benet Ramsey's partners were involved in her still-mysterious murder, and motivational speaker Jeffrey Locker rigged his own suicide to look like murder in Harlem (a New York court found a man guilty of the murder in the case nevertheless)..

Norman served as a good host and the hour flew by more quickly than expected. Wecht is no wall flower. He said that the plethora of CSI shows are unrealistic in one distinction fashion: forensic pathology and detective work are two different careers and are not intertwined. That goes along well with the critics who used to say that Jack Klugman's “Quincy” was more nosey than authoritative.

Both Norman and the crowd were disappointed that they didn't touch much of politics. Wecht did blast multi-millionaires (of which he is one many times over) for taking all the money from poor people. He also complained that Marcellus Shale businessmen were raking in big bucks while new Governor Tom Corbett was slashing educational dollars from the budget. It was an extremely easy crowd to excite with such rhetoric. Reminder: Marcellus Shale money goes into job creation, for one. The cash isn't stockpiled in a room somewhere that no one will ever be able to access. The mill jobs aren't coming back to the South Side. There's a Cheesecake Factory there now.

At the conclusion of the night, both Norman and Wecht joked that no Republicans would be in the house. Meanwhile, one sat six feet away. I re-introduced myself to Norman afterward, in front of a couple of typical blue-collar yinzer Democrats who threatened to “string (me) up” upon overhearing my conversation. I retorted that it's always good to hear a tolerant Democrat, and they left, quietly.

Wecht was gone, halfway back to his Squirrel Hill abode. It was good to be back in a room with Wecht.

It was just like old times.

Afterwards, I had a chance to catch up with Mark Rauterkus, one of the most innovative minds I've met in this lil burgh. It's always good to catch up with anyone who thinks creatively and "out of the box."

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