In early February, 1982, after workers at the Martin Container company discovered more than 16,000 unborn baby bodies in a shipping container at their yard in Wilmington, company staff called the police and then the health department.
Los Angeles County took possession of the bodies. Disposal of bodies was considered first a health problem, though there were questions of legality because some of the babies were late-term.
The L.A. County board of supervisors passed a resolution asking that autopsies be performed on the babies’ bodies to see if any laws had been violated. For example, were any babies plunged into formaldehyde alive? To answer such a question, a pathologist needed to perform autopsies to examine the lungs for oxygen residue.
(Behind the scenes feminists, including attorneys Carol Downer and Gloria Allred, were trying to have the babies classified as medical waste and incinerated.)
At least 43 of the bodies were considered late-term and were sent to the county coroner’s office for further examination. Some bodies came from the container, and after the discovery in this container, some came from Malvin Weisberg’s Woodland Hills garage, near where the sea-land container with the bodies had been for at least two years.
Thomas Noguchi was born and studied medicine in Japan. In 1952 he came to the United States to complete a residency in pathology at Orange County General Hospital and joined the L.A. County Coroner’s Office in 1960. He was appointed chief medical examiner in 1967.
Noguchi had a taste for publicity; he held news conferences and claimed to be a pioneer in solving crimes. He performed or supervised autopsies on Marilyn Monroe, Janis Joplin, Robert Kennedy, and in 1981 was involved in the investigations of the deaths of William Holden – found in a hotel with a head wound – and Natalie Wood – who drowned in a Catalina yachting accident.
Noguchi was forced to step down from his office in 1982, and in 1983 he published a best-selling memoir, Coroner.
Confronted with the bodies from the Weisberg case in early 1982, he was not happy with the board of supervisors resolution but reluctantly complied, according to a witness at the time. According to the witness, the medical section of the coroner’s office was chaotic. “There were bodies, flies everywhere, in contrast to Noguchi’s own lavishly furnished office which had a huge desk, a couch, a console, and chairs.”
The autopsies of the 43 babies in the coroner’s office took place on one day. Dr. Joseph Wood, a pathologist from San Diego, was recruited. Dr. Eva Hauser, a deputy medical examiner, and some technicians assisted Dr. Wood. Two photographers took pictures for Dr. Wood, and a coroner’s photographer took pictures for the coroner’s office
Dr. Wood arrived at 9 a.m., conferred with Dr. Noguchi, Dr. Eva Hauser, Dr. Ronald Kornblum (who eventually succeeded Dr. Noguchi as chief medical examiner), and other staff, and started the 43 autopsies around 10 a.m. Buckets containing the bodies of the late-term babies were loaded on trolleys, I.D. number boards put next to bodies, and the babies weighed and measured. Dr. Wood was taking out samples of lungs and putting them into specimen bottles.
Dr. Wood decided to have lunch before returning to finish the autopsies around 3 or 4 p.m. He went through all 43 buckets, even ones where the bodies were in pieces.
Dr. Noguchi, Dr. Hauser, and other coroner’s staff were opposed to the autopsies by Dr. Wood and his assistants (which included taking pictures) and called the district attorney’s office. The DA declined to interfere.
The conclusion of the investigation was ambiguous with respect to the abortions committed after 20 weeks and the failure to file reports; the district attorney decided he would not file charges.
Within a year federal authorities went through all the paperwork and the containers.
They were auditing to see where the money went. It was deputy district attorney Nikola Mikulicich and the federal officials who did an exact count and came up with the number of 16,433 babies’ bodies.
The feds were looking at containers to determine who the doctor was and whether there was a Medi-Cal payment. Since the Hyde Amendment had been signed into law in the late 1970s, there was not supposed to be any federal money spent on abortion.
In the end, the bodies were dumped out of their individual identifying containers and turned over to the Gutierrez mortuary for mass burial.
Fourth of six-part series from 2012. Subsequent parts to be published on June 20, June 27.
To read the first part from May 23, click here.
To read the second part from May 30, click here.
To read the third part from June 6, click here.
Watch video on the Weisberg Incident.