Gipp's Relatives Sue Over Exhumation

Friday, November 16th 2007, 11:11 am
By: News On 6

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) - Relatives of George Gipp are suing another family member, ESPN and a sports writer over the exhumation of the football legend's body to determine whether he fathered a child out of wedlock.

The lawsuit also targets the medical examiner who authorized the October 4th removal of Gipp's remains from a grave near his Upper Peninsula hometown for DNA testing, an attorney said Thursday. An ESPN crew filmed the exhumation for a planned newsmagazine program.

Test results made public last week showed the Notre Dame star was not the father of his former girlfriend's daughter, born five days after Gipp's death in 1920 from pneumonia and a strep infection.

The exhumation and paternity test, which involved the removal of Gipp's right femur, have ignited a feud between relatives of the athlete who inspired the slogan, “Win one for the Gipper.” He was portrayed by Ronald Reagan in the 1940 film, “Knute Rockne, All-American.”

“This is the most grotesque kind of thing,” said Torger Omdahl, an Iron River attorney representing Karl Gipp, who says he and George Gipp are first cousins once removed.

The probate court in Houghton County last week named Karl Gipp as personal representative for the estates of George Gipp, his father and his sister, who also are buried in Lakeview Cemetery near the village of Laurium.

Omdahl said the suit had been mailed to the county's circuit court and would be filed shortly on behalf of Karl Gipp and another cousin, Ronald Gipp.

The lawsuit contends remains of the sister, Bertha Isabelle Gipp Martin, were disturbed because workers initially dug in the wrong spot. She was buried next to George Gipp.

It accuses the defendants of negligence, “willful and wanton misconduct, trespass and nuisance” and says the exhumation caused “extreme shock, fright, humiliation and mortification” for other relatives. It seeks at least $25,000, although a jury would set damages if the suit prevailed.

Among the defendants are Rick Frueh, of Chicago, who says he is a great-nephew of Gipp's and requested the exhumation; and Mike Bynum, a sports author from Birmingham, Ala., who helped arrange the exhumation and notified ESPN about it.

The network filmed the unearthing of the body for a report about Gipp on its show “E:60,” which has not been scheduled for broadcast, spokesman Rob Tobias said.

“We were there to document it as a news event,” Tobias said. “We had no involvement in the planning or execution of the exhumation, nor did we pay for any of the proceedings.”

Bynum, who has spent years researching a book about Gipp, said he got involved in the matter after discovering an Internet posting by a woman who believed she was a descendant of the football great. She was a granddaughter of the woman Gipp had dated.

Bynum said he and Frueh, a longtime acquaintance, had wanted only to resolve the question honestly. He denied the lawsuit's accusation of being motivated by “promises of future benefits and royalties,” saying it was the plaintiffs who were making “an old-fashioned money grab.”

“We tried to do everything the right way, to follow the letter of the law, do what was proper and Christian and to help someone that was asking for help,” Bynum said.

Phone messages seeking comment were left for Frueh and for Dr. Dawn Nulf, the county medical examiner who authorized the exhumation. Nulf previously told The Associated Press that Frueh had filed the necessary paperwork and the procedure had been done respectfully.

The lawsuit contends the exhumation did not meet legal requirements and accuses Nulf of negligence.

It says the Western Upper Peninsula District Health Department was negligent by failing to prevent the exhumation. A phone message was left with the department.

Also named as defendants were the cemetery and Neil Ahola, owner of the funeral home that transported Gipp's remains to and from the county morgue. Ahola declined comment.