HAMMOND | Former international fugitive Mark S. Weinberger stepped wide-eyed into a crowded federal courtroom Monday, making his first public appearance in the United States since he disappeared on a family trip to Greece five and a half years ago.
Weinberger -- tan and thin, wearing handcuffs and baggy orange Porter County Jail scrubs -- faced questions from Hammond federal Magistrate Judge Paul R. Cherry during the former sinus surgeon's initial appearance on a 22-count fraud indictment that accuses him of putting patients under anesthesia at his Merrillville clinic and charging for procedures he never performed.
Weinberger, who was arrested on a snowy Italian mountainside Dec. 15, sported a recently shaved head and a few days' growth of black and gray beard stubble in court Monday. Initial hearings cover mundane procedural matters and they rarely draw a crowd, but Weinberger, who was profiled on "America's Most Wanted," encountered a courtroom cramped with news reporters, civil lawyers and court personnel. An unusually large complement of four U.S. marshals attended.
Weinberger first confirmed his identity and gave Cherry his birth date. When Cherry asked him his address, Weinberger thought for a few seconds.
"Um, currently, I don't have one," he said.
Weinberger then placed his address at 104 W. Delaware Place, which sits in a tony neighborhood on Chicago's near north side.
Weinberger was careful with his answers Monday. Hunched toward Cherry with his back to spectators, Weinberger said he would prefer not to say whether he has any conditions that might prevent him from understanding court proceedings. He said he understood "the language of the charges." Assistant U.S. Attorney David Nozick, filling in Monday for the absent Assistant U.S. Attorney Diane L. Berkowitz, read the 2006 indictment to the doctor, negotiating arduous medical terminology until Weinberger called out, "OK, I understand what they're alleging."
Nozick and Cherry explained that each fraud count carries a potential 20-year prison sentence, and, if convicted on multiple counts, Weinberger could be sentenced to serve the terms consecutively. Weinberger asked if that meant the sentence could be "300 years," and he was told "yes."
No attorney represented Weinberger. Cherry asked a series of questions on Weinberger's finances before finding Weinberger can't afford to hire a lawyer. Cherry said he will appoint a lawyer funded by the court system. Weinberger told Cherry he hasn't been employed for six years, and he said he knows little about his finances.
"I'm not certain of the status of my assets, in general," Weinberger said.
Weinberger is slated to return to court Thursday for a hearing at which Cherry will decide whether Weinberger could be released on bond pending trial. Prosecutors are asking for Weinberger's continued detention.
Weinberger was taken to the Porter County Jail after the hearing. Sheriff David Lain declined to comment on Weinberger's jailhouse circumstances.
Lawyer Kenneth Allen, who represents many of the hundreds of people who are suing Weinberger in civil court, came to federal court Monday armed with a writ of habeas corpus signed by Lake Superior Court Judge Diane Kavadias-Schneider. Allen stepped to the television news microphones in the windy cold outside the courthouse and said the writ means Weinberger must be sent from jail to give a deposition to Allen in the civil cases. Weinberger should be deposed sometime in March, Allen said.
"Finally, he will be facing the family of Phyllis Barnes, the woman he killed with his negligence," Allen said.
Allen said he felt the doctor is "still in a parallel universe" as to the "gravity and depth of his fraud." Allen aired his suspicion that Weinberger may have been en route to Switzerland to retrieve funds when he was captured.
Weinberger's civil lawyer, James Hough, was a quieter presence at Monday's hearing. He watched the hearing from the gallery, then walked from the courthouse as Allen prepared to go before the news cameras. Hough declined to comment.
Weinberger arrived in the U.S. on Thursday, and he was scheduled to appear in court Friday. That hearing was postponed because East Coast snowstorms snarled flight plans.
Weinberger was captured in Italy after a guide tipped off authorities the former doctor was living in a tent with high-tech survival gear. Weinberger was taken to a hospital after he stabbed himself in the neck with a knife he had hidden while he was being arrested.
When Weinberger vanished in 2004, he left his Merrillville sinus clinic buried beneath some $7 million in outstanding debts. Weinberger still faces 357 civil malpractice claims, according to the Indiana Patient Compensation Fund's Web site. The mountain of civil litigation marshaled by Allen and fellow civil attorney Barry Rooth still awaits Weinberger. Damages against Weinberger in any given suit are capped by state law at $250,000, but the state compensation fund can boost an award to $1.25 million.
Weinberger faces severe potential civil damages, but it was the 22-count criminal indictment issued in Hammond federal court that led to his arrest. Federal grand jurors indicted Weinberger in December 2006 on charges he billed insurance companies for procedures he didn't perform.
An affidavit filed in support of Weinberger's extradition previewed some of the prosecutors' evidence against the former doctor. Patients will testify they did not undergo their expected medical procedures, and an otolaryngologist will testify that Weinberger did not perform the procedures, Berkowitz, the assistant U.S. attorney, wrote.