Dr. Rudiger Breitenecker, a noted forensic pathologist whose belief in the preservation of evidence from rape victims coupled with DNA matching proved either innocence or guilt, and who was the founder of Greater Baltimore Medical Center’s Rape Care Center, the precursor to today’s SAFE Program, died of kidney failure Sept. 22 at the hospital where he had worked for more than three decades.
The Cockeysville resident was 91.
“Dr. Breitenecker was a person who was way ahead of his time who was concerned about the crime issue of rape. He was very forward-looking and futuristic,” said Dr. Charles A. Haile, former director of infectious diseases and chief of the medical staff at GBMC.
“He was thorough, knew what he was about, not gruff, but strong, and was 99 percent of the time correct,” said Dr. Haile who is now retired. “He was much liked and admired by his colleagues, and I don’t think his patients ever knew the lengths he went to for them. His work was groundbreaking, and he collected a huge number of specimens.”
Dr. Robert A. Palermo, a pathologist who is chairman and director of pathology and laboratory medicine at GBMC, worked with Dr. Breitenecker for 15 years.
“I was fortunate as a young pathologist to work with him. He was hardworking, meticulous and had a fantastic sense of humor, and during appropriate moments, he brought a sense of levity. I loved him,” Dr. Palermo recalled. “He had no pretensions and could relate to anyone. He was very competent and brought perspective.There were around 130 techs in the lab and they all felt the same way.”
Rudiger Breitenecker was born in 1930 in Vienna. He was the son of Leopold Breitenecker, a prominent professor and medical examiner at the Center for Forensic Medicine at the Medical University of Vienna, and his wife, Irma Dantine Breitenecker, a homemaker.
With the coming of World War II, the younger Dr. Breitenecker, his mother and four younger siblings left Vienna in 1943, and took up residence in a schoolhouse in a small village in the Austrian countryside, while his father remained behind.
As victorious Russian troops entered Austria and Vienna, they took out their revenge on the Austrian citizenry, raping women and pillaging.
Dr. Breitenecker told former Baltimore Sun reporter Catherine Rentz, who wrote about him in a multipart series published by ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom, this summer, that the advancing Red Army were “animals” who “stole everything they could and raped everybody they could get their hands on.”
When the war ended, he returned with his family and school, and earned his medical degree in 1954 from the Medical University of Vienna, where his father had been a prominent figure and head of the university’s Center for Forensic Medicine.
It was his father’s prominence in the field that drew students and doctors from the United States, including Dr. LeMoyne Snyder, a Michigan physician, who was the author of “Homicide Investigations,” which would be “taught in police academies and university criminology programs for decades,” ProPublica reported.
It was Dr. Snyder who offered him a job at his hospital in East Lansing, Michigan, within days of graduating from medical school, and Dr. Breitenecker boarded a steamship for New York, armed with $300 he had saved.
After training as a young physician in East Lansing, he moved to Durham, North Carolina, where he was an assistant professor of medicine at the Duke University School of Medicine, until moving to Baltimore in 1962 when he was appointed an assistant state medical examiner, a position he held until 1967, when he joined the pathology department at GBMC.
When he was with State Medical Examiner’s Office, it wasn’t long before he started handling such high-profile cases as the death in 1963 of Gene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb, a former defensive tackle for the Baltimore Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers. The 31-year-old died in a friend’s West Baltimore apartment.
It was Dr. Breitenecker who discovered needle marks on the football player’s arms. “I concluded he died of a heroin overdose and alcohol. His liver was rotten from alcohol,” he told ProPublica, noting his conclusion caused indignation across the country from people who could not accept the fact that the popular player was a drug user.
In 1970, he joined his father as an expert witness as a member of the legal team that successfully defended activist Angela Davis in a Black Panther murder trial in California’s Marin County Superior Court.
He was summoned by the U.S. Department of Justice in the wake of cult leader the Rev. Jim Jones, who inspired the 1978 murder-suicide of more than 900 men, women and children, and U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan in Guyana.
“Perhaps his greatest legacy professionally was the initiative he took to preserve forensic evidence from sexual assault victims long before the advent of DNA believing that advancements in science would someday enable law enforcement to use the evidence to identify suspects in cold cases,” according to a biographical profile of Dr. Breitenecker submitted by his family.
He was haunted by a report a doctor had written about a Maryland rape victim who had been examined in a hospital emergency room: “I examined this woman. She said she was raped. She was.”
It was also the treatment of rape victims that led him to become a DNA archivist more than half a century ago.
“And what he encountered in Baltimore deeply distressed him,” ProPublica reported. “Rape victims sat in emergency rooms for up to 10 hours before being treated and examined. When they did get to see a doctor, the exam was rudimentary. There were no standardized rape kits. And no law required that evidence left by perpetrators be preserved, so it was often destroyed within months by police or hospitals for no better reason to save space.”
Dr. Breitenecker told ProPublica that “women were considered more nuisance than victims. Nothing of value was done.”
In 1975, he established the Rape Care Center at GBMC and trained physicians how to “conduct respectful but meticulous exams and how to preserve the evidence of a possible crime,” ProPublica reported.
“He founded the sexual assault program at GBMC assault, which is the forerunner of modern programs today,” Dr. Palermo said. “He trained physicians in how to properly examine victims of sexual assault and how they needed to be evaluated. He also knew his collection of slides contained valuable DNA evidence that could be made accessible years later.”
No longer did victims of rape have to wait hours — instead, they were examined an hour after arriving at the hospital. And after all possible material had been gathered from the victim’s body, the swabs and tubes were taken to the hospital’s laboratory where Dr. Breitenecker applied the smears to thin glass tubes.
He placed the slides under the microscope where he checked for spermatozoa and from the level of acid phosphatase, he could determine the approximate timing of the semen release. He then typed up his report, which was sent to the police jurisdiction investigating the case.
“Looking back, what he did next was effectively create one of the first DNA databases in the country, makeshift as it was,” ProPublica reported, and rather than losing control over the material that numbered in the thousands he had assembled, it was kept at GBMC.
“It could be useful one day,” he explained in the interview. “You save as long as you have to.”
The union of Dr. Breitenecker’s work and advancements in the 1980s enabled scientists to match DNA from crime-scene evidence to a particular suspect, which made “Dr. B,” as he was called by colleagues, an expert witness for both prosecutors and defendants.
His work also resulted in exonerating people who had been wrongfully found guilty and sentenced to prison. When Bernard Webster was a teenager, he was sentenced to 30 years for a 1982 rape he said he did not commit.
It was Dr. Breitenecker’s slide that exonerated Mr. Webster, who on Nov. 7, 2002, “walked out of the Baltimore County Circuit Courthouse a free man, the 115th person in the country released from a wrongful conviction thanks to DNA,” ProPublica reported.
At the time of his 1998 retirement, Dr. Breitenecker was the only physician on the East Coast, family members said, who was quadruple-board-certified in anatomic pathology, clinical pathology, forensic pathology and transfusion medicine.
In 1963, he married the former Robin Carlisle. The couple, who met on a blind date, shared a passion for skiing, horses, travel, classical music and Vienna, where they particularly enjoyed the music of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and the Weiner Orchestra. They also were patrons of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Nov. 27 at St. John’s Church Western Run Parish at 3738 Butler Road in Glyndon.
In addition to his wife of 58 years, he is survived by three sons, Rudiger Breitenecker Jr. of Southington, Connecticut, Richard Breitenecker of Chicago and Roland Breitenecker of Waccabuc, New York; two brothers, Gerhard Breitenecker and Werner Breitenecker, both of Vienna; and three grandchildren.