An Indiana plastic surgeon who fled the country after being accused of billing insurers and patients for hundreds of unnecessary procedures was sentenced today to seven years behind bars.
Dr. Mark Weinberger, a nose and sinus doctor from Merriville, Ind., pleaded guilty last summer to 22 counts of health care fraud and on Friday a federal judge in Chicago gave him a far longer sentence than he and his attorneys had hoped for: 84 months in jail.
The sentencing was the culmination of a long, bizarre journey that took authorities all the way to a snowy get-away high in the European Alps. Shortly after the accusations were leveled against him, Weinberger disappeared during a European vacation, leaving his wife behind on their yacht, and managed to evade authorities for years until he was finally captured living in a tent on an Italian mountainside in December 2009.
Weinberger stabbed himself in the neck as he was being taken into custody, causing him to spend time in a hospital before returning to the United States.
It was a dramatic fall from grace for a well-known doctor accustomed to a life of luxury in Chicago's ritzy Gold Coast neighborhood.
Since his arrest in Italy, Weinberger, now 49, has been locked up at the city's federal Metropolitan Correctional Center, where he claimed to cook meals for inmates and teach yoga classes, according to the Chicago Tribune. In addition, Weinberger conducted a class on non-violence in which he "personally scripts Socractic dialogues taking place between various historical figures," the paper reported.
Numerous patients impacted by Weinberger's fraud were in court for today's sentencing, including Marzetta Williams, a Gary, Ind. resident who went to his clinic after suffering from a persistent cough.
"He said I had a deviated septum and polyps, and he needed to go in to take those out in order to stop the coughing," Williams said. "After a couple of visits, I decided to have him do the surgery on me, but when I woke up, I was still coughing. As weeks went by, I went back to his office and we had a lot of discussions where he got angry with me because I was still there and he hadn't done what he was supposed to have done. He was quite upset."
"Finally, I went to an allergist who found out that I was just allergic to dust mites and I didn't have a deviated septum, and I didn't need any of the surgeries that he had done. He had drilled two holes in my sinus cavity for nothing," she said. "It was all bogus."
Williams said she even developed an infection from Weinberger's surgery and, as a diabetic, she feared further problems could occur over time.
"They told me that I will have complications from this," she said. "I'm constantly worried."
That is one of the reasons why Williams was disappointed that Weinberger did not receive a longer sentence.
"I'm upset about it," she said upon leaving the courthouse. "It's not long enough, not for the damage he's caused me and a lot of other people who were his patients. What he did to us we have to live with for the rest of our lives. Once he gets out we'll just be a memory to him and maybe not even that."
But now, at least, Williams can take comfort in the fact that Weinberger cannot hurt anyone else.
"It makes me feel good to see him sitting behind bars," she said. "I feel like he's off the street and he can't do any more harm to anyone else. He could have killed us all, really."