A former Pittsburgh coroner who has been a consulting pathologist in cases involving President John F. Kennedy, U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, Elvis Presley and actress Sharon Tate, has added the newest household name to his autopsied celebrities list — Vernon Howell.
Houston attorney Dick DeGuerin, who represents Howell’s mother, Bonnie Haldeman, said Wednesday that he has asked Dr. Cyril H. Wecht to review Howell’s remains before the cult leader’s body is transferred from the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s office. Pathologists in Fort Worth under the direction of Dr. Nizam Peerwani used dental records to identify the 33-year-old doomsday prophet’s body, announcing Sunday that Howell, like other Branch Davidians identified so far, suffered a gunshot wound to the head.
Federal authorities who surrounded the Mount Carmel compound for 51 days after the deadly Feb. 28 shoot-out said cult members started the April 19 fire that claimed the lives of more than 70 people, including 17 children.
“It sounds like to me that there is a lot of uncertainty about the results of the autopsies, what they have found, and I would feel more comfortable with an independent medical examiner,” DeGuerin said.
“I am not criticizing Dr. Peerwani or calling into question his integrity or qualifications. But I think the family certainly distrusts anyone in authority in this case, and with good reason.
“I think it is my responsibility to do the best that I can to lay to rest any questions,” he said.
Meanwhile, Fort Worth attorney Jeff Kearney has challenged Peerwani’s qualifications and the performance of his office.
In a motion filed April 26, the attorney alleged that the rights of his client, cult survivor Jaime Castillo, will “suffer irreparable harm” if an independent pathologist is not allowed to oversee the recovery of the charred bodies and their autopsies.
The motion is pending before Justice of the Peace David Pareya, who said he will rule by Friday.
DeGuerin said Wecht, chairman of the pathology department at St. Francis Central Hospital in Pittsburgh, has agreed to assist with the case for free.
McLennan County Justice of the Peace James Collier and Darrell Thompson, a spokesman for the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s office, both said Wednesday that Wecht is welcome to consult on the case — but only after Howell’s body is released to family members.
“The medical examiners are working for the county on the criminal part of this,” Collier said.
“So after they get through with the bodies, the families can do anything they want to. If they want an independent examiner to check them, that will be their choice at their cost.
“The county will not pay for anything like that.”
Wecht, 62, said in a telephone interview from Pittsburgh that he has been a consultant in one way or another, in the President Kennedy assassination case for 28 years.
He said he was the first “non-government-appointed forensic pathologist” given access to JFK autopsy evidence, adding that he revealed in 1972 that key pieces of evidence, including the president’s brain, were missing from the National Archives.
He also participated in the JFK murder conspiracy trial of Clay Shaw, who was prosecuted by former New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, Wecht said. He has testified before Congress on his findings.
Besides the Kennedy case, Wecht said, he was an official consultant with the Los Angeles chief medical examiner Tom Noguchi in the autopsies of the president’s brother, Robert, and actress Sharon Tate, who was slain by followers of Charles Manson in 1969.
He also worked with Noguchi in the autopsies of six Symbioese Liberation Army members killed in a shoot-out and standoff with law enforcement officials in Los Angeles in the early 1970s and subsequent fire.
“That case involved lots of shooting and a fire, also,” Wecht noted. “Both cases have interesting features with a lot of similarities.”
Wecht, however, was cautious when asked how he feels about adding Howell’s name to his Who’s Who list of cases.
“Whatever I may think about the very, very interesting, provocative and controversial nature of the whole socio-political aspect of the thing down there in Waco, really, all those thoughts have nothing whatsoever to do with any involvement I may have as a forensic pathologist,” he said.
“I have thoughts, but I would not express them at this time.”
Other cases of note Wecht has worked on include serving as a consultant in the Jean Harris and Claus von Bulow murder trials.
He also reviewed Elvis Presley’s autopsy as a consultant for ABC News, he said.