Tag Archive | science

Readers remember: More memories of Officer Attig

Monday I told you about the story of Shamokin Dam Officer Charles Attig Jr.

I wrote a story about the 30th anniversary of his murder – a story that really affected me and made me think.

Since then, I’ve received some feedback from readers, including one I want to share from a pathologist who worked on the Attig case.

Here’s his account:

Your article on Charlie Attig brought back memories.  I along with many others in the prosecution of the murderer, was part of the back story.  I was the pathologist tasked with the autopsy, something that occurs in deaths of forensic interest even when the cause of death seems obvious.  This is to exclude other unexpected causes of death …  I had been in practice a little less than a year at Sunbury and was within a few weeks of moving to a new position in Huntingdon when the request came.  Although capable of performing the duties, I would not have easily been able to support the legal case from my new hospital, and since it was a policeman, I asked Dr. Hal Fillinger, the Assistant Philadelphia Medical Examiner, a man with (at that time) 20,000+ autopsies to his credit to come to Sunbury and perform the task.  At that time there were only three medical examiners in the Commonwealth – two in Philadelphia (Drs. Aronson and Fillinger) and one in Pittsburgh (Dr. Wecht).  All pathologists were exposed to forensic pathology in residency back then, and most of us performed forensic autopsies, but genuine forensic pathologists were rare.  Dr. Fillinger readily accepted the request to travel the three plus hours to Sunbury.
I was present at the autopsy along with Jim Rodenhaver who I had called to assist Dr. Fillinger.  Mr. Rodenhaver was the autopsy assistant at Geisinger and very skilled at his job.  He later was to become the Montour County coroner.  Dr. Fillinger, a colorful story teller and educator with a constant stream of patter was briefly confused by the appearance of one of the wounds since it didn’t match his expectation based on the reported direction of fire. He stood quietly pondering for awhile and looked back and forth at the wounds until he determined that the unusual appearance was a result of support from the back of the car seat.  Charlie had been shot in cold blood in his patrol car and had never had an opportunity to take cover.  He had been wearing a bullet proof vest, taking the best precautions he could at the time, but the vest was designed only for pistol rounds and was no match for a rifle bullet – a 30-30 Winchester if I remember correctly.  Even if it had been designed for rifle bullets, one of the shots had come in at an angle just under the side of the vest near the left shoulder, the “Achilles heel” as it were of the bullet proof vest.
I performed many autopsies in my career including a number of forensic cases.  Pathologists were usually never named directly in newspaper articles;  the text typically read ” according to an informed source.”   The need for (medical) autopsies has declined markedly, primarily as a result of non-invasive imaging studies such as CT scans and MRIs.    New pathologists have comparatively little autopsy experience and many do not have the ongoing forensic experience during residency training that my generation had.  Gradually autopsies are becoming centralized to regional centers rather than being part of the fabric of every hospital.  Those of us who did forensic cases are now the dinosaurs.
It is ironic that the Charlie Attig case came within the first few months of the beginning of my career and the sad event is remembered in the newspaper in the last few months of the end of my career.