News Column

Onetime Fugitive in Europe Faces 10 Years for Fraud

Oct.11, 2012

Andy Grimm

Mark Weinberger will face up to 10 years in prison for insurance fraud when he is sentenced in federal court Friday, and that simply is not long enough for Marzetta Williams.

Weinberger, who advertised his Merrillville, Ind., sinus clinic on billboards all over northwest Indiana, made worldwide headlines when he disappeared from his 80-foot yacht off the coast of Greece in 2004. He left behind his wife, a federal investigation, $6 million in debt -- and more than 350 former patients, including Williams, who allege he performed unnecessary surgeries on them.

Weinberger remained on the lam until police found him living in a tent outside a small resort town at the base of the Italian Alps in 2009. His spartan, survivalist encampment was a world away from the Gold Coast town house he once shared with his wife and a retinue of servants.

Williams was one of the first to sue Weinberger after she learned that the surgery he performed on her to treat a persistent cough in 2004 was unneeded, and that her bill included charges for as many as a half-dozen procedures he never performed.

She learned dozens of other people shared her story when she read about Weinberger's disappearance. On Friday, she expects she will see more than a few of them sitting beside her in Judge Philip Simon's Hammond courtroom when Weinberger, 49, is sentenced.

"He took me and made all these charges because of greed," said Williams, who later found her cough was caused by allergies. "That's such a despicable person to do that to a person."

Weinberger has asked to be sentenced to just the 39 months he has already spent behind bars since his arrest, and his plea deal with prosecutors caps his possible sentence at 10 years. Experts say 10 years would be a lengthy sentence for the 22 counts of fraud for which he was indicted, and they are the only criminal charges he is likely to face

In his sentencing memorandum, Weinberger describes a life inside Chicago's federal Metropolitan Correctional Center that demonstrates the same industriousness that built his Merrillville practice into a full-service clinic where attorneys for his former patients say he performed -- or did not perform -- surgeries that should have taken more than an hour in only about 15 minutes.

At MCC, Weinberger claims he cooks meals for the 88 inmates in his unit, tutors GED classes, teaches three levels of yoga classes on the rooftop prison yard and "personally scripts Socratic dialogues taking place between various historical figures" for a class on nonviolence he teaches.

Weinberger's ex-wife, Michelle Kramer, who last saw him in the predawn hours of the day he slipped away from their yacht during her birthday getaway to Mykonos, said it would not surprise her if her former husband was doing well in prison.

Kramer has finished her doctorate in psychology and managed to rebuild her life in the eight years since Weinberger disappeared.

"I do hope that the judge puts him away for a long time," said Kramer, who was 25 when she met Weinberger in 2000.

"I don't think that he would ever practice medicine again. But he is very, very smart. I do think he is going to come up with some other scam, and he could hurt people again."

There have been 358 complaints filed against Weinberger with Indiana's malpractice review board, and witnesses have testified in civil lawsuits that Weinberger often performed a half-dozen surgeries or more a day, three days a week.

"I have never seen anything like it," said Barry Rooth, an attorney whose firm represents 288 former Weinberger patients, including one client who was 5 years old when Weinberger operated on her.

The family of a Valparaiso, Ind., woman who died of throat cancer that Weinberger failed to diagnose -- though he still performed sinus surgery on her -- won a $13 million jury award.

But there is little evidence that Weinberger has money where authorities can find it.

When Kramer returned to Chicago after borrowing money for a plane ticket, she found there was no money in his accounts and he had been siphoning cash from the clinic.

Kramer filed for bankruptcy in 2005, claiming $6 million in debt. Weinberger's father also lost the $1 million he loaned his son to buy medical equipment to outfit the clinic and filed for bankruptcy in Florida in 2005, court records show.

Kramer visited Chicago this week, but said she will not attend Weinberger's sentencing. She last spoke to Weinberger a day after he fled, when she reached him at a cellphone number he had left with the yacht's captain. A cheerful Weinberger said hello. She spoke his name. After a brief silence, he hung up.

Weinberger may leave his former patients hanging as well. In depositions in his numerous malpractice cases, Weinberger has asserted his Fifth Amendment rights and refuses to answer any questions, even ones posed by his malpractice insurance company.

The insurance company has said this violates his contract with them, which could prevent them paying out any claims to his victims, said Nicholas Terry, a law professor at Indiana University.

"We don't know how this will work. (Weinberger's) case is a total outlier. The system was not set up for something like this," Terry said.

As for criminal charges, the federal fraud counts so far are the only ones Weinberger faces in connection with 22 patients and some $300,000 paid out by their insurance companies. Rooth says all his clients' medical records and bills show evidence that Weinberger billed them for procedures he didn't perform.

In April 2011, Weinberger reached a plea deal with prosecutors that would have seen him serve about four years in prison, but Judge Simon rejected the agreement because he felt the sentence would have been too lenient.

Prosecutors in Lake County, Ind., have filed no charges against him, and Terry said it is extremely rare for a doctor to face criminal counts such as assault and battery for surgical procedures.

For Williams, it seems as if Weinberger may manage to flee from justice after all.

"If they just let him out, I feel like he will just forget about all of us that he hurt," she said. "I have two big holes drilled in my (sinuses) that I don't need."

Distributed by MCT Information Services


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Source: (c) 2012 the Chicago Tribune


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