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Forensic Specialists Using Modern Techniques on 100-Year-Old Crimes : They Think They're on the Trail of the Ripper

January 31, 1988|MICHAEL BATES | Associated Press

WICHITA, Kan. — A team of investigators is on the trail of Jack the Ripper and may finally nail him as his crimes turn 100 years old.

"What we're going to do is have as close to an answer as we can to who the Ripper was," says Dr. William G. Eckert, an internationally known forensic pathologist coordinating the investigation.

A genial, gray-haired, barrel-chested man of 61, Eckert has played an investigative role in many sensational cases, including the Robert F. Kennedy assassination, the Charles Manson and John Gacy murders, more than a dozen major airline crashes and the identification of the remains of Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele.

Noguchi Part of Team

For the Ripper project, Eckert has assembled a team that includes a forensic dentist, blood and handwriting experts, an FBI criminal profiling specialist and former Los Angeles County Coroner Dr. Thomas T. Noguchi.

Jack the Ripper murdered five prostitutes in England during a 4-month spree in 1888. Eckert believes that applying modern investigative techniques to the Ripper's notes, crime scenes and other evidence can shed new light on the case.

He is coordinating the Ripper effort from Wichita, his home for more than 20 years. It is also the location of the Milton Helpern International Center for the Forensic Sciences, which he founded in 1975.

A Wichita State University classroom has been converted into a research library that houses autopsy reports, video and audio tapes, books and newspaper clipping files about many of the darkest crimes and grimmest tragedies in history.

Eckert says the center has reference materials that cover the alphabetical spectrum of deaths from abortion to war.

'Sherlock With Microscope'

It is named after the late Dr. Milton Helpern, a New York City forensic pathologist who died in 1977. Helpern was sometimes called "Sherlock Holmes with a microscope."

Eckert, a native of Union City, N. J., worked with Helpern after getting his medical degree at New York University.

The center is headquarters for the International Reference Organization in Forensic Medicine and Sciences, or INFORM, which Eckert founded in 1966 as a means of exchanging case information between practicing forensic pathologists around the world.

Forensics combines medical and law enforcement expertise to prepare evidence for use in court.

Former Los Angeles coroner Noguchi, who now teaches forensic pathology and medicine at the University of Southern California, says the center serves an invaluable function.

"There was a definite need that existed," he says. "We didn't have reference sources available as far as archives. Many cases were filed away and forgotten in medical examiners' offices or coroners' offices."

Eckert and Noguchi say many of the conclusions drawn after autopsies come from comparing the information gathered to previous cases. Hence the INFORM motto: Nihil Novum Sub Sole, which Eckert translates as "Nothing New Under the Sun."

Law enforcement officials, prosecutors, private investigators, defense lawyers and even murder mystery writers use the center extensively.

Helps in New Orleans Case

Recently, Gary Eldredge, a New Orleans criminal investigator, needed help in preparing a case in which strands of hair from a defendant were found on the hand of a murder victim. The question was whether the hair had been pulled from an assailant by the victim.

Haroldine Eckert, 62, who works closely with her husband of 35 years, fielded Eldredge's call and started digging.

Eckert says that his wife found a study that compared naturally lost hair to hair that had been pulled out. It was determined that the hair on the victim's hand was naturally lost and easily could have come from the clothing of the defendant, who was an acquaintance.

The center's services are free, but it often receives donations based on the time and phone tolls involved in particular research efforts. The contributions pay the center's $500-a-month rent and operating expenses.

Besides serving as center director, Eckert is Sedgwick County's deputy coroner and performs about 250 autopsies a year for Sedgwick and other Kansas counties.

He performed the second autopsy on the wife of former Emporia, Kan., minister Thomas Bird. Authorities initially had concluded that Mrs. Bird died when her auto plunged off a county road near a bridge.

Finds Inconsistencies

Eckert determined her fatal injuries should have been to the neck, chest and abdomen. Instead, they were all to the back, which was not consistent with the kind of accident she was supposed to have had.

Bird was convicted of killing his wife. Investigators claim he pushed her from the bridge.

Noguchi marvels at Eckert's energy and drive. He recalls that once when he and his friend of 30 years were at an international forensic conference, they went to bed around 11 p.m. after a busy day. Noguchi was awakened around 2:30 a.m. by a tapping sound coming from Eckert's room next door.

It was Eckert pecking away on a portable typewriter after a short rest.

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