Elmer Smith: This monster wasn't the kid I once knew

Posted: January 21, 2011

KERMIT GOSNELL was that kid that your mother always said you should be like.

He represented the best and brightest in our neighborhood, the kind of boy we all knew was going to make something of himself someday.

So, I'm struggling to reconcile that child of promise with the ghoulish fiend whose horrific acts were described in the grand-jury report that led to eight murder charges on Wednesday.

The Kermit Gosnell I knew was a junior or senior in high school who worked in the game room at the old West Branch YMCA at 52nd and Sansom streets. He was only a few years older than the boys who shot pool or played pingpong there. But we looked up to him.

He was a standout, tall with sandy hair and freckles, an exceptional student who was trusted and respected even by the adults at West Branch Y.

I couldn't find any trace of him in the 261-page grand-jury report that describes in disgusting detail what it calls a "butcher of women." It tells of a man driven by greed and so completely devoid of human compassion that he joked with his untrained medical staff about the babies whose lives he literally cut short with his surgical shears.

The preamble to this gory account reads like a pitch for a horror movie:

"This case is about a doctor who killed babies and endangered women," it begins. "He regularly and illegally delivered live, viable babies in the third trimester of pregnancy and then murdered these newborns by severing their spinal cords with scissors.

"The medical practice by which he carried out this business was a filthy fraud in which he overdosed his patients with dangerous drugs, spread venereal disease among them with infected instruments, perforated their wombs and bowels and on at least two occasions, caused their deaths."

You might want to stop at the overview. The graphic detail and explicit photographs are so disturbing that the report is hard to read.

A grand jury that sat through months of testimony might never be able to erase those images.

"We had witnesses who broke down and grand jurors who begged us, 'Please, don't show us that picture,' " said Assistant District Attorney Joanne Pescatore, who presented the case with Assistant District Attorney Christine Wechsler.

"It was hard for us, too. We both have given birth to children. It was horrible. You can imagine a woman and a mother listening to this."

"He jokes about one of the babies he killed being big enough to walk him to the bus stop," Wechsler said. "The jurors were very offended by that.

"And they were offended by the fact that he treated black women and Asian women so much worse than he treated white women.

"They toured the facility, through the procedure rooms and recovery rooms. They saw it when it had been cleaned up. It was still horrifying."

Wechsler and Pescatore said they had no idea how heinous the crimes were when they got started.

"It was a total shock and it continued to shock as we uncovered it," Wechsler said.

"Every witness taught us something else. It snowballed. We didn't know about how he induced labor or how he killed them until we got the remains of the babies with snips in their spinal cords."

The grand-jury report details a long and sordid history of whistle-blowers, victims and medical personnel whose reports were repeatedly ignored by city and state agencies that failed to follow up and callously dismissed suspicious deaths as an "inherent risk" of late-term abortions.

I was stunned to learn that city Health Commissioner Donald Schwarz had been so concerned about Gosnell's clinic that he personally complained to the state Department of Health about him and stopped referring patients to him 15 years ago.

Yet, the report says, "Nothing Changed" in the nearly three years he has been in charge of the department that is authorized to inspect city medical facilities.

"We think the reason no one acted is because the women were poor and of color," and because the state has adopted a hands-off approach about the regulation of abortion clinics since pro-life Gov. Robert Casey left office in 1995, the report charged.

That may be. But it's too early for me to get into the politics of this horror.

I'm still trying to figure out what happened in the years since I've seen Kermit Gosnell that may have turned one of our best and brightest into a man who murdered babies for profit.

Send e-mail to smithel@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2512. For recent columns: http://go.philly.com/smith

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