Rome: The signs seemed to point to a man preparing to escape.
Mark Weinberger had purchased diamonds, withdrawn a large sum of money from his business and packed up survival gear that he kept at his Indiana surgery clinic before disappearing more than five years ago amid mounting charges of fraud and malpractice.
Now Weinberger, 46, is in custody in an Italian hospital. The Merrillville, Ind., doctor was arrested as he hid on a snowy mountain in northern Italy and stabbed himself in the neck as he was taken into custody, police said Thursday.
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 when he disappeared while travelling 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. She described her discovery of the apparent preparations to flee after he vanished.
He could have been anywhere. He had built a glamorous life after opening his Indiana clinic, acquiring yachts, vacation properties and private jets, she said. He was an excellent doctor, she said, but 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 He promised patients $40,000 modern sinus surgeries that should have taken up to two hours, but instead performed outdated procedures that took as little as 24 minutes, enabling him to grind patients through his surgery center as if they were on an assembly line, said attorney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 both went to Weinberger after seeing ads for his classy surgery center on billboards. Brouillette, 45, said she was blown away by the grandeur of the building — cherry wood, fine furniture, a CT scanner in the office.
That 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 CT scan performed by another doctor showed little sign that anything had been done, she said.
"We`re pretty angry. ... It`s like he abandoned us and took off," she said.
Lawsuits piled up, and 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. But even as the court case against him grew at home, his whereabouts remained a mystery.
When Weinberger was apprehended earlier this week in Val Ferret, he was living in a tent, police in the town of Aosta said. A mountain guide tipped off authorities that he was there, police official Guido Di Vita said.
It wasn`t clear how long Weinberger had been in Italy, or if he had retained an attorney. Authorities said he was taken to a hospital where his neck wound was being treated.
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.
Capp said proceedings to extradite Weinberger 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.