Ex-Vegas Clinic Owner Guilty of Murder in Hep C Case
LAS VEGAS - A prominent former Las Vegas doctor and endoscopy clinic owner was convicted Monday of all 27 criminal charges against him - including second-degree murder - in a 2007 hepatitis C outbreak that officials called one of the largest ever in the U.S.
A former employee at Dipak Desai’s Endoscopy Clinic of Southern Nevada, nurse-anesthetist Ronald Lakeman, was found guilty of 16 of 27 charges against him but was spared a murder conviction stemming from the death of 77-year-old Rodolfo Meana in April 2012.
Defense attorneys for both men said they’ll appeal.
Desai, a former Nevada state medical board member, surrendered his medical license, declared bankruptcy and turned over his business affairs to family members and lawyers in recent years. He stared straight ahead as the jury’s verdicts were read.
His lawyers maintained that he was unfit for trial because of the effects of several strokes in recent years.
Desai’s wife, Kusam, sobbed quietly and one of their adult daughters cried out as Desai and Lakeman were handcuffed and led from the courtroom to jail to await sentencing Sept. 5.
"We love you, Daddy," she said to Desai. "God is with you. Always with you."
Desai didn’t appear to respond.
Desai, 63, and Lakeman, 66, face the possibility of life in prison for their multiple felony convictions.
Jurors heard more than 70 witnesses during seven weeks of testimony about a case that shocked the community when the outbreak became public in February 2008. Health officials issued advisories that led 63,000 clinic patients to get tested for potentially fatal blood-borne diseases, including hepatitis and HIV.
Investigators blamed unsafe injection practices and traced the infections of nine people to Desai clinics, although local and federal health investigators said they thought the hepatitis C infections of another 105 patients might have been related to similar practices. In those cases, however, they said they couldn’t rule out other sources of infection.
The charges in Clark County District Court resulted from the infection of seven patients and bills paid by their insurers.
Prosecutors alleged that Desai and Lakeman recklessly and negligently put patients at risk with the reuse of syringes and vials of the general anesthetic propofol during procedures at a clinic where speed was emphasized over patient safety.
Health investigators testified that they believed vials became contaminated with hepatitis C virus from two different "source" patients on two dates in 2007, and that tainted anesthetic was injected into subsequent patients on those dates.
In addition to the murder charge, Desai was found guilty of seven counts of criminal neglect of patients resulting in substantial bodily harm, seven counts of reckless disregard of persons resulting in substantial bodily harm, nine counts of insurance fraud, two counts of obtaining money under false pretenses and one felony theft charge.
Lakeman was found guilty of 16 charges including insurance fraud, criminal neglect, reckless disregard, obtaining money under false pretenses and theft. He was acquitted of 11 counts.
"I’m elated that he didn’t get convicted on the murder charge," Lakeman’s lawyer, Frederick Santacroce, said outside court. "I’m disappointed that he was convicted of the other charges."
Desai attorneys Richard Wright and Margaret Stanish, and prosecutors Michael Staudaher and Pamela Weckerly, declined immediate comment.
The jury of seven women and five men deliberated Friday and most of the day Monday before reaching their verdict.
Another former Desai clinic nurse anesthetist, Keith Mathahs, 77, pleaded guilty in December to five felonies, including criminal neglect of patients resulting in death, insurance fraud and racketeering. He testified against Desai and Lakeman and could get probation or up to six years in state prison when he is sentenced.
The state criminal case is separate from a case pending against Desai and a former clinic business manager, Tonya Rushing, in U.S. District Court in Las Vegas.
Desai and Rushing have pleaded not guilty to conspiracy and health care fraud charges alleging they schemed to inflate anesthesia times and overbill health insurance companies. Trial is scheduled to begin Aug. 20.
The hepatitis outbreak also spawned dozens of civil lawsuits, including several that yielded jury findings holding drug manufacturers and the state’s largest health management organization liable for hundreds of millions of dollars in damages to plaintiffs.