It was one of those September days that remind you that summer is over. It wasn’t that cold but the sun was hiding behind a grey sky. I was intent on getting some office work done, reviewing files and having a nice quiet day.
Before long my plan for a quiet day shattered. First, my secretary came in and told me a water main had broken and maintenance was on the way. Then the maintenance man came into my office and told me that the police were stringing yellow tape in the woods about two hundred yards from the back of the forensic center. I decided to go down to the scene and see if it was a signal 12 or a death scene.
I arrived at the scene and the police took me to the edge of a small creek. There, in the middle of the creek, was the body of a black male. He was face down in about a foot of water. As always, the first hypothesis is homicide. This demands the highest level of evidence collection. The first task was to document the entire scene and determine what evidence needed to be collected. Next we removed the body and examined him on the bank. Then we placed him in the coroner’s vehicle for transport to the morgue.
Processing a scene is like peeling back the layers of an onion. In the first layer I determined that the deceased had no visible trauma on his body. He was a man in his sixties with a physique of an athlete.
There was a duffle bag found approximately twenty feet downstream from the body. The duffle bag gave us the identity of the man and told us the dramatic story of his life. As we sorted through the bag we found clothing with Venice Beach logos. Then we found multiple bus tickets that gave us the understanding that he had traveled from California to Maryland and then to the Harrisburg Pennsylvania bus station. At the bottom of the bag was the key to this unnamed, unknown man.
A detective opened a tin box and there were pictures of this man over the past forty years. Several of the pictures showed him sitting with Arnold Schwarzenegger on the Venice Beach boardwalk. Just by the familiarity shown in the postures of the two men in the photos they seemed to know each other. After the photos there was what detectives call hard ID, which was a California State photo ID.
The person was William Pettis, who long ago was a well-known body who worked out with Governor Schwarzenegger. Bill, as everyone called him, was said to have the largest biceps in the world at over 23 inches in circumference. He was featured in several articles in LA and his picture was part of promotional posters during the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
Bill never really profited from his body building fame and much of his life he lived hand to mouth. He posed for pictures at the beach and in his later years he became somewhat of a novelty in speedos.
He ended up two hundred yards from my office because he was born in this area. He had been returning to see family. His health was not the best and he was having periods of confusion. Probably as a kid he crossed that creek many times as he headed home but this time, so many years later, it proved fatal.
So many times we see the homeless or people having a rough time as something of a distraction. We look and wonder what errors and events brought them to this status outside the mainstream and even pass judgement. Many times we avert our eyes because it feels uncomfortable. After all, what can we do about it?
All humans have dignity and their stories, good or bad, need to be told. We are all on the same journey. Sometimes we get lost on the way, but even then, we carry our memories and past talents. It is my privilege to tell a little of his story.
This is a special story in so many ways. First, there is a minister who is the perpetrator. Minister, rabbis, swamis and other spiritual guides all have the common element that people put their trust in them. We assume they can be trusted because of the role they play in society. People looking for healing—spiritual or physical—open up their deepest secrets and weaknesses to these leaders. It is easy to imagine how those with that power can use it to abuse or control the very people they counsel.
This was the case of a minister who gained the confidence of at least two women and it cost them their lives. This sacred breech of trust seems to make this crime more gruesome because two lives we taken. In both instances, the scenes were staged.
The two murders were spaced almost ten years apart. My pathologist and I initially suspected during the autopsy on the first Mrs. Schirmer that something was amiss. Either she fell down the stairs in some strange way . . . or she was attacked and the fall was staged.
As professionals, we are held to not just our opinion, or our suspicions, but rather to the standard of proof, “with reasonable medical certainty.” In the Schirmer case there wasn’t enough scene investigation to be able to form a true hypothesis. Determining the manner of death meant that this case would always stay open in our minds and be a red flag if any other strange events swirled around this man.
As it turned out, about eleven years later, the minister’s second wife died in an auto accident. The accident seemed phony, so investigators looked into the death of the first wife, and our red flag popped up.
I remember looking at the blood patterns in the car and noting that there were no impact patterns, but rather transfer blood patterns. This meant that deceased was bleeding before ever being put into the car. It was clear that we would have to reopen the case on the first wife as well.
My chief deputy and I decided to use new technology on the case. Using forensic engineering, test dummies, along with the brilliant help of the Hershey Medical Center Radiology Department, we were able to create enough evidence to prove that the manner of death of the minister’s first wife was “homicide” and not consistent with a fall. It took persistence, modern technology and teamwork: images of the old wounds were produced in new software, and we conducted engineering studies to establish the potential and kinetic energy in the scenario.
In the end, they did not die in vain—both of his wives helped one another reveal the sinister character of this minister.
The case is closed . . . but there is always another story.
I have investigated hundreds of homicides and worked many scenes but nothing has left the imprint on both my heart and brain as the experience at Ground Zero.
The work at Ground Zero and the recovery effort at Fresh Kills landfill was both physically and emotionally taxing. I arrived in the beginning of October for the recovery and identification effort. Each day we would debrief at the Treasury Building and then walk down to the site. Even the walk there was an experience I will never forget. I had on a uniform from the coroner’s office. New Yorkers of all classes and colors approached and thanked us; vendors offered free coffee, while others simply sat by the chain-linked fence embroidered with photos of the dead and missing.
As we approached Ground Zero we were met with the hush of human activity. There was plenty of noise from machinery, of course, but those working said very little. There were few gawkers and little trivial conversation; the task was too immense, too sacred, too painful. Most of the scene was dust and bended steel. Everything that had made up massive office complexes was rendered into a dust finer than sand.
As I passed by the back of the St. Paul Episcopal Church, I looked over at the old graveyard. The tombstones were covered with the grey dust almost up to the tops of the stones. Inside, church volunteers prayed, slept, drank water or just stared. Hundreds sat in a self-imposed silence, struggling to process the violence of such a horrendous act.
At the landfill there was an area for storing recovered fire trucks, police cars and private vehicles. As I walked through the twisted metal and burnt interiors of the fire trucks, one interior stood out. It was a ladder truck. As I looked in, I noticed all the gauges on the dash were melted away. The passenger seat was nothing but a skeleton of wire and springs. The driver’s seat was melted on the sides, revealing springs, but on the actual seating portion was a charred vinyl outline, on the seat and the back. I realized I was looking at the last moments of a fireman’s life. He sat there as a blast of heat and force most likely made him part of the surrounding dust.
There were hours of debriefing and crying. First responders had witnessed those choosing to leap to their death rather than suffer the fire. They described in great detail the body position of those descending to the ground. Many described how some just laid in the air with their arms over their chest, some in an almost cross-like posture, all resigned to their fate.
The images were so seared in their brain that they would describe details like their tie pattern, their shoe color or the expression on their face. Somehow many felt responsible. Many kept thinking: if only this or that could have been done. A traffic cop told me that he was one of the police directing others in the front of the towers and felt like he had ushered them to their deaths. That is one of the purposes of peer debriefing. The sooner you can articulate what you saw, the reason you did what you did, and express the pain that it caused, the sooner you can deal with what you had to confront.
September the 11th will never be the same, for any of us. Every year I feel what I felt each day as I passed by a large section of the tower wall. You know the image. It was all over TV. It reminded me of the ruin of some sacred building and I am sure others have noticed that resemblance. At night, with the lights exposing the monolith and the dust creating a fog-like appearance, one could not speak only whisper.
Money, status, politics, even selfhood didn’t matter. America was wounded, not only New York. In the same church I walked by, George Washington referred to the importance of understanding that we could not endure without the belief that it was Providence that had provided us all with this experience of freedom. He said we needed to understand that there are values and laws greater than man. He said we must hold on to this belief so that we can temper our freedom, for the larger freedom of all.
For a short time—regrettably a very short time—we returned to those values. We gave, we volunteered, we shared loss, and commonly grasped for a better tomorrow. We can always build another tower, but what we still need to build is a common spirit, a desire to serve beyond our own self-interest. We must once again find common values foundation. We must build walls of compassion, industry and stewardship with the tempered steel of resolve and endurance.
God Bless America
The murder of Gary Wiest is profound on many levels. It was a type of killing deeply abhorrent in almost any culture. We live in a violent society. In today's world, murder takes so many different forms. There are those who murder for money, those who murder out of rage, those that kill out of religious convictions, as we know all too well.
Gary’s is a story of patricide and extreme entitlement gone wrong.
The first thing that my pathologist and I noticed was that there were at least 40 wounds in the form of stabs, cuts and abrasions on his body. Yet there was almost no blood. None of the usual blood patterns on the surface of the victim’s body were consistent with the wounds he received. The body had clearly been washed. There was also a strong possibility that original clothing had been taken off and the clean underwear had been put on.
I wondered, what kind of person kills someone violently and then washes him?
We had to make identification with reasonable medical certainty. The victim’s face was blown up beyond any photographic recognition, due to several days of decomposition, making a visual ID impossible. The body needed to be x-rayed before it was brought to the forensic center; those x-rays revealed a past surgery implant, confirming his identity.
We started to do a conditional notification of death to his survivors. Gray had a mother and two daughters. Everyone was extremely cooperative. He had been well liked by his former coworkers within the close-knit community around Harrisburg. As the leads were drying up, the police looked more closely at one of Gary’s daughters and her relationship to her father. It’s a fact that most people who kill generally know their victims or have frequent contact with them.
As it turned out, on the same day as her father’s death, Gary’s daughter had been gone to the local emergency room with a serious, deep laceration of the thumb. When questioned she first claimed that she had been mugged. Later she said she had accidentally cut herself.
Police asked to look into the trunk of her car. When they opened the trunk they found all her implements of destruction; the knife, the duct tape, the garbage bags and cleaning products. It seemed she had taken almost no precautions to cover her guilt. Perhaps what she had done was too much to bear and she wanted to be caught.
Gary’s daughter’s attack was one of torture and rage. Only about three wounds out of Gary’s 40 wounds were fatal. He had multiple defense words on his arms. At one point in the attack he fell to the floor. It is likely his daughter straddled him, and repeatedly stabbed and slashed him. She stabbed him in the face, the neck area, the chest and ultimately the abdomen. The face is an important thing. It is our identity.
After it was all over, she must have gotten up and then realized the immensity of it. The methodical cleaning of both the apartment and her father's dead bleeding body was almost a ritual, like trying to cleanse away her sin. I believe that Gary’s daughter left the body because she could not face the task of dismembering him and removing him to a different location. Her fantasy descended into a total denial of her deed and a refusal to accept what she had done. While I don’t believe the daughter necessarily decided beforehand to murder her father that day, she did bring a knife to her father's apartment.
And what was the cause of the conflict? Money.
Gary and his daughter had gotten into an argument over finances and a stolen checkbook. Angered that she would steal from him, Gary tried to cut off the long- time financial support he had provided her.
Almost every parent can relate to this dilemma. We wonder, will supporting our kids help create a positive change in their lives, or just a negative dependency and entitlement?
Gary's loving support of his daughter financially created within her a right to take anything she wanted from him . . . right down to even his life.
The case is closed . . . but there is always another story.