Shadowing the Angel of Death
By Idelle Davidson

How U.S. diplomat Stephen Dachi tracked down proof of Josef Mengele’s death and closed the door on years of controversy.

It was intolerably hot that summer afternoon in 1979 when a man’s lifeless body was pulled from the gentle Atlantic sea at Bertioga, Brazil. Cause of death: drowning while suffering a stroke. After giving the body a perfunctory examination, the local coroner placed it in a simple white coffin, and friends quickly buried the casket under a false name in a small hillside cemetery near São Paulo. There the remains lay undisturbed for the next six years.

On June 6, 1985, two gravediggers exhumed the bones while a crowd of 200 reporters, forensic specialists, and international authorities gaped in macabre fascination. They had come to this not-so-final resting place to see the remains said to belong to the infamous Nazi death-camp physician Josef Mengele.

Brazilian federal police had learned of the Angel of Death’s gravesite from a couple who admitted to sheltering Mengele while he was alive. The lawmen had tracked down the pair after receiving a lead from the West German government, and all available evidence seemed to confirm that the bones were Mengele’s. But if this were indeed the man who was responsible for the systematic torture and murder of as many as 400,000 of the more than one million people—most of them Jews—who died at Auschwitz, Poland’s most notorious concentration camp, the irony of his death while vacationing at a beach resort seemed unconscionable to the world’s Jewish community, and especially to his surviving victims.

Mengele: The name and the horrors of Nazi death camps are synonymous. Survivors of Auschwitz remember the impeccably dressed officer who greeted the incoming trains. He stood on the platform with a detached smile, whistling a Wagnerian aria, surveying the prisoners as they stumbled out of the boxcars.

As the column filed past, he separated the prisoners with a simple wave of his thumb: to the left, life; to the right, the crematoriums.

He was also the “doctor” who performed sadistic experiments on his human guinea pigs. In the name of the Aryan ideal, he plucked the brown eyes of his victims and implanted blue. To rid the world of future generations of Jews, he castrated men without anesthetic; his mutilation of women’s reproductive organs was equally gruesome.

After the end of World War II, Mengele fled to South America, where he succeeded with maddening ease in eluding the police and Nazi hunters for 40 years through chameleon-like changes of persona. In 1945 he was briefly held by U.S. agents but managed to slip away to his hometown of Gunzburg, Bavaria, where he lived for four years under his own name. By the time German authorities finally went after him, he was already on his way to South America. Until his grave was discovered, reports placed him everywhere from Paraguay to Miami.

Consequently, many people remained skeptical of the identification of the remains, even after forensic experts performed tests on the skeleton and concluded “with reasonable scientific certainty” that it was his. What if the jumble of bones taken from that windy cemetery were someone else’s and their sudden “discovery” just another of the Nazi war criminal’s cunning ruses designed to foil would-be captors?

Vera Kriegel, the head of the Israeli-based C.A.N.D.L.E.S. organization, which represents survivors of Mengele’s medical experiments on twins and dwarfs, had this to say of the Mengele-is-dead announcement: “We simply don’t believe any of this. It’s all nonsense, an attempt to get us off his trail. He has done it before, and he is doing it again.”

Two gravediggers exhumed the bones while the crowd gaped in macabre fascination. They had come to see the remains of Josef Mengele.


Everyone involved in the case—including Stephen Dachi, the U.S. consul general in São Paulo—knew that only Mengele’s dental X-rays, considered as accurate a forensic tool as fingerprints, could offer irrefutable proof. But no one knew if X-rays even existed. Dachi, who had been an oral pathologist before entering the foreign service 21 years ago, became the liaison between Brazilian federal police chief Romeu Tuma and the U.S. team of forensic specialists. In the process he became something else: obsessed.

Born and raised in war-ravaged Eastern Europe during World War II, Dachi, now 55 and a naturalized U.S. citizen, remembers a childhood haunted by Nazi cruelty and death. He had to know whether Mengele was alive or dead. And, although not Jewish himself, he understood why the “reasonable certainty” of Mengele’s identification was not good enough for most Jews.

“We’re talking about the hearts and souls of people who have suffered,” says Dachi. “For understandable reasons they need 100 percent certainty.”

After the medical teams had packed up their state-of-the-art equipment and returned home, he continued to think about the case, discussing it often with his wife, Lee, with Vice-Consul Fred Kaplan, and occasionally by phone with his son Chris Dachi, the legislative counsel to U.S. Congressman Rod Chandler (R.-Wash.).


In June 1985 the U.S. Office of Special Investigations (OSI) asked Dachi, the only known oral pathologist in the diplomatic service and the highest-ranking American on the case, to examine the exhumed skull and determine the cause of an unnatural hole in it.

“When I held the skull in my hand, I have to confess I was transfixed,” he says. “I was transported for a moment into another world: a railway station in Auschwitz where the Angel of Death lurked in waiting for his human subjects. Except in my fantasy, I was holding up the skull of Mengele to the 400,000 waiting in line for the gas chambers. I saw myself symbolically showing Mengele’s death to them.”

Dachi ran some tests and determined that a chronic sinus infection had eaten a hole in the skull. After he presented his findings to international forensic specialists, officials handed him a section of Mengele’s authenticated diary. They hoped that Dachi, who speaks German as well as five other languages, could decipher Mengele’s coded scrawls.

Two notations in the book piqued Dachi’s interest: the date December 6, 1978, and the words “appointment for root canal, Dr. Gama in Sama.” The Brazilian police had already acted on that information and determined that there was no place in Brazil called Sama. Nor had they found the right Dr. Gama, whom Mengele described elsewhere in his diary as having a big round face and a bald head.

Undaunted, Dachi decided to look for Gama himself but soon collided with the Brazilian administrators’ notoriously inefficient recordkeeping. “There’s no system,” he grumbles. “Most things in Brazil are alphabetized by first name; we didn’t know Dr. Gama’s first name.” Also many Brazilians have four or five names and don’t always list them in the same order each time in phone books or public documents. And, according to Dachi, phone books are seldom updated.

So his sleuthing took another course: he waded through lists of members of dental societies and customers of dental-supply houses. “That is two light years more than the Brazilian police would ever have been willing to do,” says Dachi. “They don’t investigate their own crimes that carefully.”

His tireless probe turned up seven dentists named Gama in São Paulo. Dachi interviewed one and ruled him out. As for the remaining six, four had graduated from school after 1979, one had never practiced and had moved away, and one had died.

While brainstorming the problem with Vice-Consul Kaplan, Dachi remembered that Mengele often abbreviated words in his diary to disguise places and names. Could the town of Sama—which didn’t exist—be Santo Amaro, a town at the edge of São Paulo?

“Everybody had seen the word Sama,” says Dachi. “The FBI saw it; the OSI saw it; the U.S. Marshal Service saw it; the Brazilians saw it. They all said, ‘Sama? There is no place called Sama.’ The only guy who took the time to think about it and figure out what the hell it meant was me.”

Dachi and Kaplan picked up an old phone book and were elated to see the listing of a dentist in Santo Amaro by the name of Hercy Gonzaga Gama Angelo. Dachi had his secretary call to make an appointment and confirm that this Dr. Gama fit the description noted in Mengele’s diary.


“I went back to the federal police and told them ‘I think we’re closing in on the real thing.’ They got very excited,” says Dachi.

That very day—March 21, 1986—the consulate chauffeur drove Dachi, Kaplan, and a Brazilian federal police agent into downtown Santo Amaro. A sense of unreality washed over the group as their eyes surveyed the unfamiliar buildings on the approach to Gama’s office. As if on cue, Dachi recalls, music—the kind that builds suspense in movies as the celluloid hero finally closes in on his prey—blasted from a nearby record store.

Dachi and the others found Gama’s building and second-floor office without a hitch. And after one look at the grim government officials who stood at his door demanding to see charts and records, Gama cooperated, hauling out thousands of files in cardboard boxes.

Dachi, Kaplan, and the policeman each took a pile. They didn’t know which alias Mengele had used to see Gama, just the dates of Mengele’s visits. Suddenly, with a cry of “Opah!,” the Portuguese equivalent of “Oh my!,” the policeman held up his find: a chart dated December 6 and 11, 1978, indicating root-canal and upper-molar work. It also showed payment of 2,000 and 1,000 cruzeiros—all information mentioned in Mengele’s diary. Dachi turned the chart over. It read: “Pedro Hochbichler, 5555 Estrada Alvarenga.” This was it. Hochbichler was the alias Mengele had used upon his arrival in São Paulo—and Mengele had lived at that address.

Gama, who was appalled to find that he had treated the cold-blooded doctor of the Auschwitz death camp, quickly explained that he no longer had Mengele’s X-rays; he had sent them to a Dr. Kasumasa Tutiya, Mengele’s referring dentist in 1978.

Still, the final piece of the puzzle was within Dachi’s grasp: Mengele’s protectors had mentioned that he had visited a Japanese dentist. Tutiya is Japanese.

The three investigators took off at a near run, recalls Dachi, heading in the direction of Tutiya’s office, which according to Gama was only a block and a half away. On the way there, Dachi felt a panic grip his gut. “I wondered, is Tutiya still alive? If so, does he have Mengele’s chart?”

The doctor was in.

The office, up a rickety flight of stairs, was shabby and gray, with the unmistakable medicinal smells of dentistry wafting through the waiting room. Tutiya appeared perplexed by their demand to see Pedro Hochbichler’s chart, but he gave it to them. He remembered the patient only as “the man with the hat.” (Mengele wore hats to shield his identity. Ironically, the hats themselves became his trademark, because few Brazilians wear them.)

Dozens of notations appeared on the chart. “We asked Tutiya if he had any dental X-rays,” Dachi recalls. The dentist opened a file drawer and took out a little envelope marked PEDRO HOCHBICHLER. Eight dental X-rays fell out.


It was a heart-stopping moment for Dachi. His arms turned to goose flesh as he held the X-rays and the magnitude of the find sank in. “We were triumphant, exhilarated,” he says.

Later, still savoring the drama of the moment, he exclaimed to the press, “It was like winning the lottery. In 40 years no one had ever found a single X-ray of Mengele. We found a man who had eight.”

Lowell Levine, a consultant to the U.S. Justice Department and the only forensic odontologist on the case, flew immediately to Säo Paulo to verify the X-rays. The verdict: They matched Mengele’s skull perfectly.

Dachi’s role in confirming Mengele’s death has been unchronicled until now; only the few people on the case knew about his detective work. And not everyone is convinced, even today, that he conclusively proved Mengele’s death. Says Eva Kor of C.A.N.D.L.E.S., “Mengele is alive and laughing.”

Sensitive to some people’s distress over the idea that Mengele never had to answer for his atrocities, Dachi feels that no one should be pressured to believe the forensic evidence. “They’ve suffered enough—why try to cram this down their throats?”

But others, like anthropologist Clyde Collins Snow, one of the U.S. experts present at the exhumation, jubilantly credit Dachi’s detective work. “Goddamn if we didn’t have the right guy—one of the world’s leading oral pathologists—in the right spot,” he says. “It put the last nail in the coffin in the Mengele case.”

Rabbi Marvin Hier, the dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says, “Dachi was the man who found the X-rays. It was an important find in corroborating that the body was Mengele’s. “The case is closed.”