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Monday, April 27, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Molly Ivins

Texas Panhandle Lets Out A Giant `Oooops!'

Creators Syndicate, Inc.: Fort Worth Star-Telegram

AMARILLO - Good grief, they're digging up bodies all over the Panhandle. Turns out the man who has been performing autopsies for 40 Panhandle counties for most of the past 20 years has been exceedingly, ah, careless at best. He's being indicted all over the place, motions for retrial are being filed, prosecutors are re-examining old convictions, hundreds of cases are at stake and lawsuits are flying.

It's a giant, collective "Ooops!"

It started last May 30, when Terri Trosper, 27, of Childress, was found dead. Dr. Ralph Erdmann, the town's contract forensic pathologist, ruled she had died of natural causes - choked on her own vomit, in fact. But local officials suspected foul play, and a Childress County grand jury asked for a second autopsy, which was performed in December. That autopsy showed Terri Trosper died of asphyxiation and that someone had apparently smothered her.

Craig R. Newman, 48, died on Dec. 22 in Levelland. Dr. Erdmann said it was accidental cocaine poisoning. His autopsy report included the weight of Newman's spleen, a fact that puzzled Newman's brother, since Newman's spleen had been removed during surgery before his death.The body was exhumed and showed no evidence of having been autopsied or even of an incision, although Erdmann had billed Hockley County $650 for the Newman autopsy. A second autopsy showed no trace of cocaine in the body. Hockley County has indicted Erdmann on two felony counts.

As the results of Erdmann's autopsies continued to be questioned and reviewed - cause of death of a child in Lamesa changed from homicide to accidental death, Lubbock reviewed six capital murder cases, retrial demanded in another capital case because Erdmann lost the toxicology report on the victim, etc. - the ghoul patrol cranked up. Encouraged by the intriguing news that Mrs. Erdmann had been accepting finder's fees from a Dallas firm that trades in body tissues, the rumor mill ran amok. The Amarillo News was reduced to solemnly reporting there was no truth to the rumor that Dr. Erdmann had performed autopsies in the parking lot of the International House of Pancakes in Amarillo.

Nope indeedy, but there were two parking-lot autopsies held in back of Boxwell Brothers Funeral establishment, and Erdmann's laboratory in Amarillo turned out to be a rundown house on Willow Creek Road with no running water, no air conditioning, no heating and no working sewage. He worked on a rusty table set up on wooden blocks with no drainage, except when the body smelled really bad (have some more pancakes), and then he worked outdoors on a closet door propped on 50-gallon drums and let the body fluids drain into the ground. In fairness to Erdmann, he had complained about these conditions to Potter County commissioners. As he said, "It's horrible . . . that was terrible . . . that was insane . . . it was totally unprofessional . . . eewww."

Defense attorneys all over the Panhandle are having a field day, claiming assorted prosecutors conspired to cover up Erdmann's incompetence. Randy Sherrod, the district attorney in Randall County, claims that in most cases the autopsy was irrelevant since his convictions were largely based on other evidence. Ah, but will insurance companies that have paid out for accidental deaths attested to by Dr. Erdmann be content to let the dead lie? The Panhandle may soon look like the backyard of a dog fond of burying and reburying bones.

This gory episode set in the seeming normalcy of the Panhandle is attracting lots of tabloid press coverage. It's a long-held theory of mine that the Panhandle is always stranger than its bland, Midwestern surface leads most folk to suspect. For example, Stanley Marsh the Third, Amarillo's most notable eccentric, has been at work again. (Marsh is the guy who planted all the Cadillacs tail-fin up out by the Amarillo Highway.)

Marsh is currently into signs. There's a nice one in a prairie dog town outside town that reads: "Prairie Dog Town East: No Taxes, No Mayor, No School, No Cops: Just Native Americans." There's also a new obelisk outside town that says, "Grave of the Unknown Pet." Kids come and write their pets' names on it and leave candy and dog biscuits there.

But Marsh's finest recent contribution is a monument to a poem to a monument. What appear to be the marble ruins of an ancient statue loom up suddenly on the vast plains, accompanied by a weathered inscription and what looks for all the world like a Texas State Historical marker. It says, "In 1819, while on their horseback trip across the great plains, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Leigh Hunt and Mary Wollstonecraft came across these ruins.

"Here Shelley penned these lines:

I met a traveller from an antique land

Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

And on the pedestal these worlds appear -

My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away."

This apparition is across the road from Randall County High, where kids major in rodeo. I think we're all lucky to live in the same state with Stanley Marsh.

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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