Yesterday, two years after retiring, Zugibe was back at the Dr. Robert L. Yeager Health Center in Ramapo, in the office he nurtured all those years, the office where he ruled on thousands of deaths.
He returned, surrounded by family, friends, former colleagues and members of all areas of criminal justice, as the medical examiner's complex was named after him — the Frederick T. Zugibe, M.D., Ph.D. Forensic Suite.
The honor made every bit of sense to Jim Costello, a retired senior investigator for the office, who joined Zugibe's staff in the early days.
"We go back to the beginning," Costello told a crowd jammed into the entry hall and rooms on both sides. Speaking to his ex- boss, he said, "Not only have you sailed the ship for so long. You built it."
Zugibe said he realized very early on that the old county Board of Supervisors had created the post of medical examiner, but not a medical examiner's office.
"I was all alone. No secretary, no equipment, no place to do autopsies and no investigators." Back then, he said, his wife and children would take his calls on their home telephone.
At the old Community Hospital of Ramapo, he found a place where he could do one autopsy at a time. Sometimes, he said, there might be six waiting and he'd have to do them one after another.
He lured Costello away from a job at Letchworth Village to join his staff. "When he came on," Zugibe said, "we were working day and night, six and seven days a week." Soon, he hired two assistant medical examiners, but he still had to create his own forms and make copies of them at his brother's hardware store.
Over the years, the office grew in size and stature and developed a reputation for integrity and professionalism.
During Zugibe's tenure and now under Dr. Lone Thanning, his hand-picked successor, who took over early in 2003, staff stability has been a hallmark, investigator Joe Segelbacher said. "We haven't had much turnover," he said. "I was the rookie — the junior investigator — for 20 years."
With all the high-visibility cases the office handled, Segelbacher said, his former boss never hogged credit. "He was always talking about how 'we did this' or 'we put this together.' He always recognized others, who dotted every 'i' and crossed every 't.' "
County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef, with his predecessor, John Grant, at his side, said Zugibe didn't invest so much passion for the sake of money.
"He did it," Vanderhoef said, "for his love of his community and forensic pathology." He praised Zugibe's sensitivity to Rockland's diverse religions and cultures and said naming the forensic suite for him "pays tribute to the living legacy of someone who will always be part of Rockland."
He said a portrait of Zugibe, presented during the ceremony and displayed between two plaques, "will hang here forever in your honor."
Zugibe hasn't been resting on his reputation during retirement.
Just this week, his newest book, "The Crucifixion of Jesus: A Forensic Inquiry," is being published by M. Evans and Co. of New York.
In it, Zugibe, an internationally respected expert on the crucifixion and the Shroud of Turin — which is believed to be Christ's burial cloth — establishes that Christ died not of asphyxiation on the cross, but as a result of shock due to blood and fluid loss because of three hours of beatings.
He ruled out asphyxiation, as theorized by many other experts, by conducting more than 50 years of experiments on cadavers and on living volunteers he suspended on crosses so as to measure the physical effects on their bodies.
And in July, Broadway Books will publish "Dissecting Death: Secrets of a Medical Examiner," written with David Carroll, an account of 11 of Zugibe's most infamous cases. They include the Brinks robbery-murders of 1981 and the 1985 case of "The Man in the Leather Mask" in which a Norwegian student's remains were found in a pre-Revolutionary War smokehouse at a Stony Point retreat owned by a U.N. official. Zugibe was called upon to debunk a defense contention that the student had been stabbed to death before being shot by the U.N. official's son, Bernard LeGeros, who ultimately was convicted in the death.
Zugibe has traveled to Portugal with his wife and has spent more time with his extended family, but he still takes on the occasional private forensic case. He's selective about those cases, he says, proud that no jury has ever believed other expert testimony over his.