By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Although he had his supporters, many doctors began to turn against him, worried he’d endanger their careers. “They were completely cowed,” Fitzgibbons says. The number of patients he treated began to dwindle. The hospital hired another doctor to replace him as director of infection control, a job that had paid Fitzgibbons a sorely needed $1,000 per month. “People wouldn’t talk to me who had known me for years,” he says. “Business got slow. I was pretty sure I would go bankrupt.”
Meanwhile, a series of bizarre coincidences began to occur. At the end of November 2005, a water heater burst, leaked and flooded Fitzgibbons’ office. “It was a pinhole that suddenly developed in the pipe,” he recalls. “Not only was I being sued for all my money, but also my office was a total mess.” On several other occasions, Fitzgibbons says, he would be in his office and notice something out of place—a file drawer left slightly open when he could swear it had been shut, furniture that seemed to have been moved ever so slightly. “I felt like I knew something was going on, but I couldn’t identify it, like I knew someone was messing with me.”* * *That feeling became a certainty just two weeks after an Orange County Superior Court judge threw out IHHI’s lawsuit against Fitzgibbons, at the exact moment when Fitzgibbons watched a Santa Ana police officer fish from his car a loaded handgun and a pair of black gloves—neither of which he’d ever seen before. After the gun and gloves were placed into evidence bags, police brought Fitzgibbons to the station, booked and strip-searched him, then led him to a cell, where he remained until 8 p.m. that evening, when his wife drove him home. If the arrest was meant to damage Fitzgibbons’ standing at Western Medical, it worked. A few weeks later, on July 13, the hospital’s new chief of staff sent Fitzgibbons a letter demanding he appear before a “well-being committee” to address the incident.
Determined to clear his name, Fitzgibbons loudly proclaimed his innocence. “It’s a fairly complex crime,” he told the Weekly at the time (see “Can I Get a Witness?” July 27, 2006). “It involves some planning and forethought. And obviously, it’s a crime that someone paid for.”
By the time that story ran, the county district attorney’s office had declined to prosecute Fitzgibbons; he was able to produce cell-phone records showing he had been talking on the phone with a fellow doctor at the exact time when the road-rage incident had supposedly occurred. Plus, both of the 911 calls that alerted police to the alleged road-rage incident were made by callers who refused to identify themselves and were calling from disposable—therefore untraceable—cell phones.
Yet Fitzgibbons says there was even more damning evidence that the whole thing was a set-up, although it hasn’t been made public until now. On July 5, a few weeks after his arrest—Fitzgibbons had been in Texas at a family reunion—his wife drove him to an impound lot to retrieve his car. As he opened the driver’s-side door, he glanced through the window and noticed a bag of yellow pills on the passenger seat. Each pill had been stamped with Playboy magazine’s famous bunny logo.
“There were probably 100 or so pills in this sandwich-size Ziploc bag,” Fitzgibbons says. “I took a photograph of it because I had my camera with me.” (Fitzgibbons provided that photo to the Weekly.) Fitzgibbons summoned the lot attendant and told him there was a bag of what looked like Ecstasy pills in his car. The man refused to even look in the vehicle. “I don’t see anything, and if you ask me to testify, I’ll say I never saw anything,” Fitzgibbons recalls him saying. Instead of handing the pills over to police, after discussing it with his attorney, Fitzgibbons decided to dispose of the bag and its contents.
Unfortunately, even bigger trouble was brewing. A few weeks later, at about 7 p.m. on the evening of July 16, he received a frantic telephone call at his Irvine home from his 23-year-old daughter. Her car had just flipped over on the 22 freeway near Valley View Road. “She was in tears and said the car had suddenly gone out of control and crashed into the center divider,” he says. “She said the wheel had jerked to the left and she flipped.”
His daughter had two friends in the car, Japanese exchange students, who hadn’t been wearing their seat belts until, fortuitously, she told them it was against the law to not buckle up. All three escaped without a scratch. Fitzgibbons and his 22-year-old daughter jumped in his wife’s Astrovan and headed to the scene of the crash, but as he pulled out of the driveway, his daughter told him the front right tire had just gone flat. So he got in a second vehicle, picked up his older daughter and her friends, and took them to an urgent-care clinic.
Although the California Highway Patrol ruled the crash to be an accident, Fitzgibbons was suspicious enough about what had happened to hire a forensic investigator to examine the car. It didn’t take long for the investigator to discover a 2-inch horizontal slash on the tire’s tread. His assessment: Someone intentionally slashed the tire, which catastrophically failed, thus causing the crash. (The investigator confirmed that assessment in an interview with the Weekly at the time; Fitzgibbons provided the Weekly with a photograph of the damaged tire.) Fitzgibbons’ wife had already taken her Astrovan in to have the other punctured tire replaced, so there was no way to check if it had been slashed as well.