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Mengele Case Now Entering Science Labs

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

After a breathless first act, the search for Josef Mengele, the death camp doctor of Auschwitz, now becomes a drama of patient police and scientific detection in which Brazilian national honor confronts international incredulity.

“It doesn’t matter if he lived here (as sworn statements from two families attest). What is important is whether it was Mengele in the coffin,” said Neal Sher, a U.S. Justice Department official here to offer American assistance to the Brazilian investigation.

The latest and perhaps climactic round in a 40-year search for the Nazi war criminal went public last week with equal measures of Brazilian flair and improbability.

Millions at home on the feast of Corpus Christi, a national holiday, watched live television as two gravediggers exhumed a six-year-old coffin that police said might contain the remains of Mengele. The diggers half opened the coffin lid. One donned rubber gloves and scooped out the bones. They were dumped without ceremony or order into a fresh coffin and driven away.

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After such an haphazard start, the Brazilian case steadily gained resonance, climaxing Saturday with compelling testimony from a Hungarian-born woman who swears that her family unhappily sheltered Mengele for 13 years.

Romeu Tuma, the Sao Paulo police chief directing the investigation, declared Sunday a day off. Today, Tuma’s detectives will begin seeking corroborative testimony to weigh against the assertions contained in the depositions of Gitta Stammer, who says Mengele came to live in her home in 1961, and of Wolfram and Liselotte Bossert, who say they were with Mengele in February, 1979, when he drowned and was buried as Wolfgang Gerhard.

There are many holes in the affirmation that Mengele lived quietly in Brazil for 18 years--and many ways good police work can fill them.

At 9 this morning, Brazilian science will join the Mengele hunt, when four pathologists and a forensic dentist begin what will likely be prolonged examination of bones and teeth exhumed from the Gerhard coffin. The Brazilians have politely declined all offers of expert international assistance.

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“We have highly qualified specialists and at the moment do not need experts from outside,” said Jose Antonio de Mello, the deputy coroner of Sao Paulo who supervised the exhumation and will head the forensic investigation.

No one has said so, but for Brazilian medical specialists, the Mengele case offers an unexpected chance to mend wounded pride.

Negative Attention

Millions of Brazilians were frustrated and angry at the international attention that Brazil’s medical science received when its eminent specialists were unable to cure what they first described as a minor medical problem afflicting President-elect Tancredo Neves.

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No one in Brazil has forgotten that notoriety, least of all the specialists who will study the purported Mengele bones in laboratories only a few hundred yards from where Neves died without ever taking office.

Nothing could rankle Brazilian sensibilities more than suggestions now, however well meant, that foreigners could do a better job in the forensic investigation. No positive response will be forthcoming from a letter to Brazilian President Jose Sarney from the mayor of Miami Beach, Fla., who urged that Brazil allow Israeli specialists to conduct a forensic study because the Israelis have the most compelling need to know the truth.

Still, there are legitimate--if so far unsurfaced--grounds for concern. Last Thursday’s smash-and-grab exhumation, for example, would have thoroughly unsettled experts, sponsored by the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science, who used meticulous archeological techniques last March in Argentina to recover skeletons of unidentified victims of that country’s so-called “dirty war” against terrorism during the 1970s. There’s more ground to cover, but more room for mistakes, in the police investigation that Tuma is directing.

According to her deposition, Gitta Stammer said Mengele told her that he first went to Buenos Aires from Europe after World War II and then to a town outside Asuncion, Paraguay, before moving to Brazil. Stammer said that he moved in with her family in 1961, posing as a Swiss national, and remained with them until 1974--long after Mengele’s true identity was known to her.

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Information Sought

Tuma said that he has asked Argentine and Paraguayan police for more information. Mengele hunters have long known about an Argentine identity document issued to Mengele in 1956 and a 1959 court order in Asuncion giving Paraguayan citizenship to Mengele, an order that was canceled by the Paraguayan Supreme Court in 1979.

The original Stammer and Bossert statements to police will be expanded and checked. If Mengele really lived in Brazil for 18 years, many more people saw him than the families who protected him. Tuma said he will talk today with the Stammer family dentist, who says that a man the Stammers brought to him for treatment may have been Mengele.

The police search will be aided by Wolfram Bossert’s hobby of photography. A number of candid photos of the supposed Mengele are available, in addition to those on official Brazilian documents identifying him as Wolfgang Gerhard.

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Already Tuma has a witness who swears that Mengele’s son Rolf, whose picture was found in the Bossert house on a 1983 Christmas card, was a visitor to the home of the man who died as Wolfgang Gerhard. Police are checking immigration records to document what they say were two visits to Brazil by Rolf Mengele on a German friend’s passport.

Tuma has asked Austrian police for further information on the real Wolfgang Gerhard, whose identity Mengele is said to have assumed after Gerhard, a mechanic, retired and returned to Austria around 1975. Gerhard is said to have died there in 1978 about six months before the man carrying his Brazilian documents drowned here.

West German police, who dug up the information that set off the Brazilian hunt, are being asked for more details about both Rolf Mengele and lawyer Hans Sedlmeier, who is said to have been the conduit between Mengele and his family in Europe.

In her sworn statement to police, Gitta Stammer mentioned at least two visits to Mengele by a man she knew only as Hans. Detectives are expected to show Stammer pictures of Sedlmeier and ask if he is the Hans she says she first met in the early 1960s.

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Tuma says he has witnesses who swear that the man who drowned in the Atlantic off a Brazilian beach in February, 1979, was indeed the same man pictured on Gerhard’s documents.

What Tuma concedes that he so far lacks is disinterested eyewitness testimony that the drowned man was in fact buried in Gerhard’s coffin. So far, there has been only the unsupported testimony of Wolfram and Liselotte Bossert for that.

“There are witnesses who saw the man in the coffin. We’ll find them,” Tuma said.

Motivation is also so far inadequately explained: why witnesses like Stammer and the Bosserts are willing to talk now after so many years of professedly and fearful silence.

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If Tuma and his detectives are able to incontrovertibly establish that Mengele lived in Brazil for nearly two decades, they are bound to open new avenues of inquiry along the way.

How broad, for example, was the conspiracy to protect Mengele? Who directed it? Who financed it? Is the conspiracy sheltering anyone else?

Finally, proving that Mengele lived long in Brazil would not only undermine the theories that have focused around Mengele’s reported prolonged--and recent--presence in Paraguay, but also raise even more questions. Were Mengele’s pursuers victims of their own bad detective work all these years? Or were they duped by disinformation contrived to protect Mengele’s lonely asylum in Brazil?


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