Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The doctor went for broke and lost

Dr. Ronald Mikos, a Chicago podiatrist was under investigation for Medicare fraud, and subsequently was charged with two counts of obstruction of justice in connection with the case.

Federal agents had been investigating Mikos's Medicare billings for 1995-2000, a period during which he billed more than $1 million for foot operations, including more than 600 operations for just six patients.

Ronald Mikos had held a California medical license since 1982. If he was convicted and incarcerated as a result of the above charges, the California Board of Podiatric Medicine would have grounds to file an Accusation Document seeking revocation of his license and an immediate automatic suspension order that would remain in effect until the outcome of the revocation proceeding.

When you are facing a trial, the last thing you should be doing is tampering with the members of the jury. The prosecutors said that Mikos had been urging potential grand jury witnesses not to cooperate in the fraud probe. A search of Mikos's car turned up "scripts" on coaching patients how to respond if investigators questioned them about the alleged Medicare fraud scheme. In one, Mikos advised the patients, many elderly, to stop the questioning by pretending not to feel well.

One whom Mikos had contacted was Joyce Brannon, a former patient for whom he allegedly billed for 85 nonexistent surgeries. Brannon was found shot to death in her apartment January 27th. Federal prosecutors said that Mikos was the top suspect. Of course, he denied any involvement in the murder.

According to the prosecutor who was prosecuting him for the murder of his former patient, the Chicago podiatrist murdered his former patient just days before she was to testify against him in a fraud probe because the doctor believed she would be the lone witness against him, a prosecutor said Tuesday.

Assistant U.S. Attorney, Jeffrey Cramer told the jury in his opening statement that Mikos shot Joyce Brannon three times in the back and then put the gun against the flesh of her neck and fired three more times, emptying his revolver. Brannon, 54, a disabled caretaker, was killed in the basement apartment of the North Side church where she lived and worked.

Cynthia Giacchetti, one of Miko’s lawyers tried to debunk that government’s theory, pointing out that the massive investigation had uncovered that nearly 100 patients who were victimized as part of the Medicare fraud. He suggested that there wasn’t a real motive to kill the woman. He pointed out that killing just one patient could not possibly end that investigation.

If Mikos is convicted of Brannon's murder, prosecutors intend to seek the death penalty from the same jury.

In addition to the murder, the 25-count indictment charges that Mikos, 56, defrauded Medicare of more than $1.2 million by falsely claiming to have performed more than 6,000 surgeries. He is also accused of obstructing justice by recruiting patients to lie to investigators about the fraud.

In opening remarks to jurors, Cramer said Mikos knew that Brannon was among the patients of interest to investigators after he voluntarily met with a prosecutor and agent in the fall of 2001 to try to convince them he had performed all 6,000 surgeries.

By early 2002, Brannon and three others had been subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury. One prospective witness, Charles Lobosco, was taking kickbacks from Mikos as part of the fraud scheme and Lobosco's daughter, another would-be witness, was mentally disabled and not a threat to Mikos either, Cramer said.

The other potential witness, an elderly woman, had led Mikos to believe she wouldn't testify against him either, Cramer said. "Only Joyce Brannon stood in his way," the prosecutor told jurors. "He had to do something."

Three days before the murder, Mikos retrieved several firearms of his from Skokie police and called Brannon to plead with her not to testify. But Brannon later told her sister and a friend of the call and said she had refused to lie for Mikos.

After Mikos' arrest, the FBI recovered all the firearms in a storage facility rented by Mikos except for a .22 caliber revolver that authorities believe was used to kill Brannon. An exhaustive search didn't turn up the gun, Cramer said.

In her opening remarks, Giacchetti cautioned jurors not to be swept up by the emotion of the case. She recounted how Cramer had dramatically described certain murder details in his opening but pointed out that Mikos wasn't seen anywhere near Bethany Evangelical Lutheran Church, 5942 N. Magnolia Avenue. And no physical evidence connects him to the murder scene either, Giacchetti said.

He scoffed at the government contention that Brannon was key to the prosecution case, saying, "There were 90 other patients."
Dr. Ronald Mikos was convicted by the jury for the murder of his former patient who was cooperating in a fraud probe of him. Moments before U.S. District Judge Ronald Guzman made final the death penalty imposed by the jury, Mikos, 57, declared in a strong voice: "Your honor, I did not kill Joyce Brannon."

The podiatrist was convicted in a largely circumstantial case of fatally shooting Brannon, a disabled caretaker, at the North Side church where she lived and worked. She was killed just four days before she was to testify against him in January 2002. Prosecutors maintained that the murder evidence was strong against Mikos despite its circumstantial nature. In a search of his car, investigators found a handwritten note of the church's Sunday schedule, showing he had scouted the location, authorities said.

Mikos' lawyer, John Beal, vowed an appeal and said the death penalty was inappropriate because of Mikos' mental illnesses and abuse of prescription drugs and alcohol.

Brannon's mother, Selma, 91; and sister Janet Bunch had attended each day of the trial. But Selma recently died and Bunch chose not to attend the sentencing But in a letter, Bunch said she supported Mikos' execution "as soon as the law allows. I feel that Ronald Mikos forfeited any rights to leniency when he planned and carried out the cold-blooded execution of my sister," she wrote.

Bunch had provided key testimony at trial that her sister called her three days before the murder and implicated Mikos, saying he tried to talk her out of testifying by pleading that he would be ruined.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Jeffrey Cramer said Mikos checked out Brannon's residence at Bethany Evangelical Lutheran Church, 5942 N. Magnolia Avenue three times in advance of the murder. After sneaking up from behind, he shot her five times in the back and neck at close range and then placed the weapon flush against the back of her head and fired a final time, emptying the revolver, Cramer said.

Mikos was also convicted of bilking Medicare of more than $1.2 million by billing more than 6,000 foot surgeries he never performed, including some 70 on Brannon, authorities said.

Mikos is only the second defendant to be sentenced to death in Chicago's federal courthouse since federal death-penalty statutes were rewritten more than two decades ago.

In a bid to persuade jurors to spare the life of Mikos, 56,, his lawyers tried to show he was still a positive influence in the lives of his three young children despite his incarceration. The defense also contended that Mikos' judgment had been clouded by mental illness and abuse of alcohol and prescription drugs.

Mikos showed no emotion when U.S. District Judge Ronald Guzman announced the verdict. The six-woman, six-man jury deliberated over parts of three days before imposing the death penalty on Mikos. Jurors had been told that Mikos faced life in prison without possibility of release if they didn't impose the death penalty.
"This was an inexcusable murder of a federal witness, a woman who had done harm to no one, who was going to do what she thought was right, was completely helpless because of her disability, whose murder was in absolute cold blood," First Assistant U.S. Atty. Gary Shapiro told reporters. "If there is a death penalty and you don't invoke it when the justice system itself is attacked, particularly in this way, then it's probably never going to be invoked."

Brannon's mother, Selma, 91, and sister, Janet Bunch, both of whom attended each day of the trial since its opening on April 19, hugged prosecutors and agents following the death penalty verdict.

"For us, it's still beyond belief that someone could murder Joyce in such a horrible way," the family said in a statement. "... We will always remember Joyce and be proud of her for doing what she knew was right even though, tragically, she lost her life for doing so."

While testifying during the death penalty hearing, Bunch wept when she recalled how Brannon had asked her if she should notify someone after Mikos had called her, pleading with her not to testify against him. "I didn't tell her to," Bunch said. "Instead, I tried to calm her down."

Two jurors, Jacquelyn Savini of Bolingbrook and Evelyn Guzman of Cicero, emphasized how difficult the decision had been to impose the death penalty, but both declined to elaborate further.

Lustig, 60, a document-imaging architect from Bolingbrook, said jurors took their time weighing the issues before deciding in favor of the death penalty. "It wasn't an open-and-shut case," Lustig said. "We tried to put our emotions to the side as best we could."

Earlier, jurors had asked to view a videotape of Brannon's apartment taken weeks after her murder "to look at what Mikos had to do to get to her," Lustig said. "He was intent on going in there to do it," Lustig said. "He couldn't look her in the eye and do it. He did it from behind."

Lustig said the circumstantial nature of the case was an issue during the deliberations at the trial, not in the death penalty hearing. "We knew we had the right person," he said.

After weighing a long list of mitigating factors pushed by the defense, the jury offered one of its own: criticism of state and federal regulators for not shutting down Mikos' medical practice even though they had been aware of violations and troubles for years.

"We did feel very strongly that the system didn't catch him soon enough," Lustig said. But ultimately, the jury felt Mikos had to be held accountable for his own actions, he said.

Attorneys for Mikos left the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse without comment. Mikos has been in custody since his arrest in February 2002.

Since federal death penalty statutes were rewritten more than two decades ago, only Darryl "Pops" Johnson, a Gangster Disciples leader convicted in 1997 of ordering two suspected government informants killed, had been sentenced to death by a federal jury in Chicago before Monday. Johnson is still incarcerated in a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Here is the irony in this case. Mikos would likely have been released by now if he had been convicted of the Medicare fraud alone and had not killed Brannon to try to squelch the probe. Now he is sitting on death row waiting for the day when he is to be executed by lethal injection.

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