August 27, 2007
Mengele Investigation, Brazil (April, 1986)
Readers of The New York Times will have noticed the obituary last week of Dr. Leslie Lukash, former Nassau County medical examiner. Dr. Lukash was one of the team of forensic experts sent to Sao Paulo, Brazil in June of 1985 by the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles to examine the purported remains of Josef Mengele, the notorious Auschwitz physician and war criminal. There were a lot of experts there: the Brazilian team from the Medical-legal Institute, a team from Germany, and two teams from the US -- the Lukash team and one assembled by the US Department of Justice.
A significant tension characterized the evaluation of the remains. Romeu Tuma, the Chief of the Federal Police in Sao Paulo, presided over the investigation and ferried between the international press on one hand, and the assembled team of experts, on the other. He seemed acutely aware of being at center stage in the biggest story of the day and wanted to make sure that he could deliver a confident answer on the question of the identity of the skeleton while public and press interest remained high. I was present at the private meetings and can report that, although there was no overt pressure, Tuma wanted an answer soon.
There was a deep split within the group of forensic experts. The Wiesenthal Center team, with Lukash at its head, argued that it was too early to close the case. There was still more investigation necessary and there were issues that needed clarification. Others were willing to be more definite. The assembled group of specialists -- forensic pathologists, radiologists, odontologists, finally agreed upon compromise language and settled on the formulation that the body was Mengele's "within a reasonable scientific certainty." Tuma got the answer he wanted, hosted a dramatic press conference, announced the findings, and closed the investigation. Within a short amount of time, Tuma rose to the position of Chief of the Brazilian Federal Police.
It could have ended there: a closed case with many loose ends and a great deal of uncertainty. A few of us at the Office of Special Investigations in the Justice Department appealed to Neal Sher, the head of our office, to allow work to continue on the case. There were, we argued, a number of leads that needed pursuing and newly discovered sources that needed study. With Neal's approval, and without the glare of publicity, we returned to Sao Paulo in April 1986 and followed those leads and studied the sources, including Mengele's diaries and correspondence which were found after the body was discovered.
The new sources led to the discovery of additional medical and dental records, which removed the ambiguities and uncertainty that had been present earlier on, and which would have, over time, undermined confidence in the conclusion that Mengele was dead. Like that of JFK and Marilyn Monroe (and others), the death of Josef Mengele might have been the subject of speculation and suspicion. Instead, with patience and careful work, we addressed every issue and removed all doubt.