5 years after vanishing, US doctor facing fraud claims at home is arrested on Italian mountain

By Marta Falconi, AP
Thursday, December 17, 2009

US doc accused of fraud found on Italian mountain

ROME — An American doctor on the run for five years as charges of fraud and malpractice mounted against him was arrested as he hid out on a snowy mountain in northern Italy, and stabbed himself in the neck as he was taken into custody, police said.

Mark Weinberger, 46, of Merrillville, Ind., was apprehended earlier this week on a mountain in Val Ferret, where he was living in a tent, police in the town of Aosta said Thursday.

A mountain guide tipped off authorities that he was there, said police official Guido Di Vita. Weinberger had previously rented an apartment in the area but then left without paying and was likely trying to sneak into Switzerland, Di Vita said.

Weinberger’s patients in the United States, who have been waiting for years to tell a court they believe the doctor misdiagnosed them, botched surgeries or hastily performed the wrong procedures, hoped his capture will mean their lawsuits can finally go forward.

“We want him . . . to look these people in the eye and explain why he did this,” said Kenneth J. Allen, who represents around 60 families accusing Weinberger of negligence.

The mystery surrounding Weinberger, who was known as the “Nose Doctor,” began more than five years ago when he disappeared while traveling with his wife in Greece. 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.

He had been troubled by malpractice lawsuits before the trip, his wife, Michelle Kramer, told CNN’s Larry King in August 2005. She has since filed for divorce. After he vanished, she said she learned that he had purchased diamonds before leaving, withdrew a large sum of money from his business and had taken survival gear that he kept at his Indiana clinic.

He could have been anywhere. He’d built a glamorous life after opening his Indiana surgery clinic, acquiring yachts, vacation properties and private jets, she said. He was an excellent doctor, she said, but had a “narcissistic personality disorder” and needed constant adoration and always wanted bigger conquests.

“I think that his fragile ego and the narcissism and onslaught of criticism that came from the lawsuits, just caused him to show, you know, cowardice and just turn tail and run basically,” Kramer said.

The longer he 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, enabling him to grind patients through his surgery center as if they were on an assembly line, said Attorney David Cutshaw of Indianapolis, whose firm represents more than 100 former patients.

Jennifer Brouillette and her husband, David, both went to Weinberger after seeing ads for his classy surgery center on billboards. Brouillette, 45, said she was blown away by the luxuriousness of the building — cherry wood, fine furniture, a CT scanner right in the office.

“Who has a CT scan right in their office?” she said.

But the good impression quickly faded after a 20-minute surgery that was supposed to last three hours, she said. The results didn’t live up to expectations and the procedures cost $70,000, and she and her husband both had to consult other doctors. Then Weinberger vanished before her husband’s follow-up checkup. A follow-up CT scan at another doctor showed little sign that anything had been done, she said.

“We feel that nothing was really even actually done,” she said. “We’re pretty angry. … It’s like he abandoned us and took off.”

Lawsuits piled up, and Weinberger was indicted by a federal grand jury in Hammond, Ind., in 2006 on 22 counts of fraud for allegedly concocting a scheme to overbill insurance companies for procedures that were either not needed or sometimes never performed. But even as the court case against him grew at home, his whereabouts remained a mystery.

Over the years, there were some clues about his movements. His wife said in her interview with King that after Weinberger disappeared, she received credit card statements showing he had been in casinos in Monte Carlo and the South of France. She tried to track him down, with no success.

Nearly a year after his disappearance, she said, someone paid off $10,000 on one of Weinberger’s credit cards. She believed it was Weinberger.

It wasn’t clear how long Weinberger had been in Italy, or if he had retained an attorney. Extradition details also weren’t known, and authorities said he was hospitalized and being treated for his neck wound. A U.S. treaty with Italy requires that extradition proceedings begin within 40 days, Allen said.

Federal prosecutors are working on paperwork required to request Weinberger’s extradition, said David Capp, the acting U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Indiana. Capp said extradition proceedings could take a year or more. However, Allen said, if Weinberger waives extradition, he could be returned to the United States as soon as February or March.

Relatives of former patients said the arrest might bring an end to the saga. 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.

“It will give my family some closure,” Hood said. “All that anybody really wants is for him to be held accountable for what he did.”

Falconi reported from Rome, and Wilson reported from Indianapolis. Associated Press Writers Don Babwin in Valparaiso, Ind., and Michael Tarm in Chicago contributed to this report.

January 26, 2010: 11:00 pm

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