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Worker botched seven autopsies

151 AUTOPSIES RECHECKED: The mistakes have resulted in an exhumation and a new death investigation by police.

By JANE MEINHARDT

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 24, 2000


CLEARWATER -- A doctor hired last August by Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner Joan Wood determined the wrong cause and manner of death in seven autopsies in eight months, records from Wood's office show.

Those errors and other mistakes by Dr. Richard O. Eicher have resulted in the exhumation of one body, the reopening of a death investigation by Clearwater police and added grief for a number of families who must deal with new, sometimes dramatically different information about how a loved one died.

Wood ordered her staff to review the 178 autopsies done by Eicher, who resigned in March, after it was determined he confused bullet entrance and exit wounds in a man's head. Records from Wood's office obtained by the Times this week show 151 of his autopsies have been rechecked.

"The vast majority of his cases were fine," Wood said Friday. "It was just a few cases. Of course, I'm unhappy we had to change any (findings.)"

In an interview Friday, Eicher characterized some of the revisions as differences of opinion. He said Wood never questioned or criticized him, but he decided to resign because of the sheer volume of work.

"I was under a lot of pressure," said Eicher, 60. "At times there were two (pathologists) doing the work of four."

Wood, who hired Eicher without checking his references, acknowledged she spent much of her time during Eicher's tenure dealing with a case against the Church of Scientology.

"I admit to being busy at that time," she said. "I was up to my eyeballs in Scientology."

The disclosure of Eicher's mistakes comes at a time when Wood herself is under fire for her handling of the 1995 autopsy of Scientologist Lisa McPherson. Gov. Jeb Bush is scheduled to determine by July 1 whether to reappoint Wood. She has held the job since 1982.

Wood changed her initial conclusion in that case, eventually ruling the death accidental. As a result, prosecutors dropped criminal charges against the church, saying they no longer could rely on their star witness.

Among the Eicher cases changed by Wood's staff so far:

The death of a Seminole woman who Eicher thought had died of pneumonia. The review determined she killed herself with a drug overdose.

The death of a Pasco County man who, Eicher determined, died of coronary artery disease. He committed suicide by suffocation.

"He was found dead in bed with a plastic bag over his head," Wood said. "For some reason I do not know, (Eicher) thought it was heart disease."

Eicher had not reviewed that case Friday and would not comment on it.

Errors discovered in the autopsy of 92-year-old Pauline Pulver of Tarpon Springs resulted in significant changes. Her death initially was classified as natural, caused by coronary artery disease.

It was changed to an accidental death caused by blunt chest trauma. She was found dead Aug. 24 on the shore behind her house on the Anclote River. She was lying face-down on boards from a broken railing of a deck 7 feet above her.

Eicher said Friday he thought Pulver's death was accidental because she could have had a cardiac problem causing her to stumble and fall through the railing.

"I think our difference of opinion here is a judgment call," he said.

Pulver's 98-year-old husband, William Pulver, whom she fed every day at a nursing home, was her only relative. He died before his wife's autopsy was changed.

Dawn Harsaghy of New York said she was devastated by a mistake made in the autopsy of her father. She got a shocking telephone call eight months after she had buried her father in a plot near his mother's at Fishkill Rural Cemetery.

Busy at the dental office she manages in Wappingers Falls, Harsaghy was not prepared for what she heard from Larry Bedore, Wood's chief of operations.

"He told me they had to do another autopsy on my father," said Harsaghy, 28. "He said that the medical examiner that did the first one did not do it correctly and did not get the proper information. He told me that if they didn't do a second autopsy, the guys that killed him would get off. It was very, very upsetting."

On May 19, Wood's staff went to New York and exhumed James Harsaghy's body.

"It was devastating," his daughter said. "You'd expect they'd do an autopsy right. Now, after I laid my father to rest, they have to do this?"

Her father, a 46-year-old house painter, was fatally beaten in Clearwater during an attack by robbers Sept. 11. He died three days later at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg.

Three men were charged with first-degree murder. Because their trials are pending, officials will not release what additional information the second autopsy revealed.

"We were scurrying around on the Harsaghy case for a while, but that's been fixed," said Clearwater police Sgt. Wayne Andrews.

Dawn Harsaghy traveled to St. Petersburg to be with her injured father. She had to decide when to remove him from life support at the hospital.

"They knew he was brain dead," she said. "I can't understand why they didn't get that right in the first autopsy."

Wood said when Eicher's autopsy of Harsaghy was reviewed, her staff determined arteries in his neck had not been examined for injury related to blows. The arteries were checked in the second autopsy.

Eicher acknowledged he did not do a posterior neck artery examination during his autopsy. He said he didn't think it necessary because he found other significant trauma that would have caused Harsaghy's death.

Because of revisions in another case, Clearwater police have had to resume a death investigation. Eicher had decided Steven Howell, who died from a gunshot wound to his head in November, committed suicide.

Howell, 37, of Safety Harbor, was found Nov. 16 in the water near his burning boat on Island Estates. He was scheduled to appear at a Dec. 2 hearing on a charge he raped an 11-year-old girl.

After reviewing Eicher's work, Wood's staff revised the ruling to undetermined, which means the autopsy could not confirm whether it was suicide or another manner of death.

Wood said Eicher confused the bullet entrance and exit wounds in Howell's head. The bullet entered the lower rear of his head, she said, making it suspicious enough to investigate other methods of death.

Eicher said Friday it was difficult to determine which wound was which, but injury to Howell's brain led him to believe the bullet had entered from the front.

"It appeared to me that it was an entrance shot through the nose," Eicher said. "That's what I felt at that time."

Clearwater detectives are retracing their steps and looking for additional information.

"Now we have to pull out all the stops," Andrews said. "The first (manner) of death made it simpler to close the case, but now that it's undetermined, we have to make sure we're on the right track. We have to continue investigating."

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