Fugitive doc's ex-patients want their day in court

AP News
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Posted: Dec 18, 2009 6:36 PM

Dr. Mark Weinberger had a one-size-fits all practice, lawyers say.

When patients who saw his billboards promising to cure sinus problems came to his plush Indiana office, he told them they required extensive, expensive surgery. But that's not what they got, they say.

Now, hundreds of patients are hoping that Weinberger's arrest this week on an Italian mountain after he disappeared while on a European vacation five years ago will mean their lawsuits claiming the doctor misdiagnosed them, botched surgeries or hastily performed the wrong procedures can finally get their day in court.

One such patient was Amy Verhoeve, 32, who to Weinberger's Merrillville offices suffering from minor sinus complaints and was told she needed surgery, said Leslie Gibson, an Indianapolis attorney whose law firm represents Verhoeve and other ex-patients. After the surgery, problems persisted and she went to another specialist who told her that nothing she had been billed for had been done, Gibson said.

To make matters worse, the surgery had caused a hole in her septum that required corrective surgery, her lawyer said.

"He would tell them that they needed surgery on all of their sinuses," Gibson said. Instead, "He almost always drilled holes in their sinuses in the wrong place and didn't do anything else.

"It would almost be better if he'd put them under and didn't do anything," she said. "At least then he wouldn't have mutilated them."

Weinberger's long ordeal ended this week on a mountain in northern Italy when he was arrested in Val Ferret, authorities in the tiny town of Aosta said. A mountain guide tipped off authorities that he was there, living in a tent, police official Guido Di Vita said.

Another guide who helped police find Weinberger, 46, said Friday he had noticed ski traces and followed them until they saw man standing outside a tent near a cliff. He said it was strange to see someone camping in the area during this time of year because temperatures are below zero.

The guide, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the investigation was ongoing, said Weinberger appeared confused when the police approached him and didn't seem to understand Italian well.

As he was taken into custody, he stabbed himself in the neck, officials said. He was being treated in the prison ward at Molinette hospital in Turin on Friday, where his wounds were not considered life-threatening, hospital officials said.

It wasn't clear how long Weinberger had been in Italy, or if he had retained an attorney there.

The mystery surrounding Weinberger, who was known as the "Nose Doctor," began when he disappeared while traveling with his wife in Greece in 2004. He was the subject of an international dragnet and his case was featured on "America's Most Wanted" as recently as August.

His wife said at the time that they had been vacationing on his 79-foot powerboat in Mykonos and she woke up to find him gone.

On Friday, his wife, Michelle Kramer, said she was "delighted" he'd been arrested and was confident he would be brought to justice.

"His actions and cowardice have adversely affected the lives of many people. I knew that with the media exposure and his propensity to live ostentatiously that it would be a matter of time before he resurfaced," Michelle Kramer said in a statement read to The Associated Press. After his disappearance, she filed for divorce and now lives in Birmingham, Ala.

Merrillville attorney James Hough, who represents Weinberger, said Friday he hadn't been in contact with his client since he disappeared. He said there were about 300 claims filed by patients against the physician but declined to comment further.

The longer Weinberger was gone, the more patients came forward. As they told it, his clinic seemed posh, his medicine elite and convenient. He promised patients $40,000 modern sinus surgeries that should have taken up to two hours, but instead performed outdated procedures that took as little as 24 minutes, attorneys and lawsuits said.

In at least one case, according to a lawsuit, Weinberger's routine cost a life.

Peggy Hood, the sister of 50-year-old Phyllis Barnes of Valparaiso, Ind., said Weinberger treated her sister for sinus problems but failed to discover advanced throat cancer, and the delay cost Barnes her life.

Weinberger also failed to diagnose 9-year-old Kayla Thomas with throat cancer, and instead performed sinus surgery _ something she didn't need, said attorney Kenneth J. Allen, who represents Kayla and about 60 other ex-patients. The girl has since had multiple brain surgeries and some permanent disabilities but she's doing her best to live her life, Allen said.

The Medical Licensing Board of Indiana permanently revoked Weinberger's medical license in May 2005, saying the evidence indicated that he had planned his disappearance for some time. It said an investigation revealed that Weinberger had used his practice to defraud numerous insurance companies, submitted claims that were grossly overbilled, billed for unnecessary surgeries or services not performed.

Weinberger was indicted by a federal grand jury in Hammond, Ind., in 2006 on 22 counts of fraud for allegedly scheming to overbill insurance companies for procedures that were either not needed or sometimes never performed. A U.S. treaty with Italy requires extradition proceedings to begin within 40 days, Allen said. Federal prosecutors are working to request Weinberger's extradition, said David Capp, acting U.S. attorney for Indiana's Northern District.

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Associated Press Writers Marta Falconi in Rome, Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Ala. and AP researcher Judith Ausuebel in New York City contributed to this report.