On June 28, 2006, Santa Ana police arrested Dr. Michael Fitzgibbons, an infectious-diseases specialist at Western Medical Center in Santa Ana, for allegedly waving a gun in traffic after they found a pistol and a pair of black gloves in his car. There are still many questions surrounding the incident: Who were the mystery callers who dialed 911, reporting the suspect was a man in a white medical coat driving a brown Toyota Camry? How were police able to find the vehicle so quickly in the hospital's parking lot several blocks away? Why would a soft-spoken doctor who'd just won a whistleblowing lawsuit celebrate by pointing a gun at strangers in traffic?
These questions may never be answered. But according to a jury trial that just ended at the Orange County Superior Courthouse in Santa Ana, there's one fact upon which everyone agrees: The alleged road-rage incident in question never happened. Instead, somebody planted the gun and gloves in Fitzgibbons' car. On Feb. 13, a jury went a step further, agreeing with Fitzgibbons' claim that he'd been framed by his employer in retaliation for an email he sent to colleagues questioning the company's financial outlook. The jury awarded him a whopping $5.7 million in damages.
In his successful lawsuit against the company, Integrated HealthCare Holdings Inc. (IHHI), Fitzgibbons had sought more than $46.8 million, arguing that his arrest at the hospital—and a series of subsequent strange events that nearly killed a family member—nearly destroyed his medical practice and left him permanently scarred with post-traumatic stress disorder. Lawyers for IHHI tried to convince jurors that Fitzgibbons had somehow set himself up in a bizarre ploy to appear as an unstable martyr, a strategy the jury took less than a day to reject.
This surreal saga began in 2005, a year after IHHI took over the cash-strapped Western Med and three other Orange County hospitals from the scandal-plagued Tenet Corp. As chief of the hospital's medical staff, Fitzgibbons was concerned that patient care might suffer under IHHI because the company just defaulted on a $50 million loan; in May of that year, he sent a pointed email to colleagues raising that concern. When IHHI officials got wind of this, they promptly sued him for slander and interfering with business practices. Fitzgibbons countersued, arguing that IHHI's lawsuit violated his free speech; a judge agreed with the doctor and tossed out the company's suit in June 2006.
Two weeks after the decision, Santa Ana police arrested Fitzgibbons for the alleged gun-waving, but he was released after the department impounded his car and fingerprinted and strip-searched him at the police station. Because prosecutors had no eyewitnesses, his fingerprints weren't on the gun and DNA taken from the gloves failed to show a match, the doctor was never charged with a crime. But when he went to pick up his car at the impound lot on July 5, he quickly saw something that hadn't been in the vehicle when the police had found the gun—a plastic sack full of pills, each one stamped with the Playboy-bunny logo. Figuring someone was hoping to frame him yet again, Fitzgibbons immediately handed the bag over to his attorney, who flushed the pills down the toilet.
His troubles weren't over yet. On July 16, his daughter's car flipped on the 22 freeway. Miraculously, neither she nor her two passengers was injured, but as Fitzgibbons pulled out of his driveway, he realized one of his tires was flat. Although authorities ruled the crash an accident, Fitzgibbons was suspicious enough to hire a private crash investigator, who found a two-inch slash in one of the tires (see "Car Trouble," Aug. 4, 2006). Irvine police refused to investigate his claims, however, and Fitzgibbons tried to move on with his life.
Yet controversy and lawsuits continued to circulate around IHHI. The company's main lender, Medical Capital Holdings, turned out to be a Ponzi scheme whose investors lost hundreds of millions of dollars, while the lender's executives used the cash to finance lavish parties and even purchase a multimillion-dollar private yacht. In yet another bizarre twist, IHHI chief executive officer Bruce Mogel personally pressured the lender to obtain a $5 million loan for an Internet-porn advertising firm, E-Mark, that appeared to be a phony company (see "New Complications In the IHHI Saga," July 30, 2009).
One of the lawsuits swirling around IHHI led to an under-oath deposition of Larry B. Anderson, IHHI's vice president, which provided the first clue about the mysterious road-rage incident involving Fitzgibbons. According to Anderson, shortly after Fitzgibbons won his lawsuit against IHHI, Mogel told him that the doctor needed to be "humbled." Mogel, Anderson added, then proceeded to brag that he had a friend named Mikey Delgado, a weight-lifting thug who had Santa Ana cops on his payroll and could cause trouble for Fitzgibbons or any other doctor who interfered with the company.
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Mogel instructed Anderson to issue a $10,000 check to Delgado's webpage-design company, Form Labs, which never did any work for IHHI, whose own investigators later determined it to be a front company with nothing to show for itself but a post-office-box address in Scottsdale, Arizona, where Mogel lives. After he cut the check and Fitzgibbons was arrested, Anderson suspected the mysterious Delgado had planted the gun in the doctor's car. Those suspicions were confirmed, he adds, when Mogel appeared to relish in Fitzgibbons' plight, even remarking, "People don't know how powerful I am."
Delgado's identity has never been confirmed, although testimony at Fitzgibbons' trial this month revealed that investigators found a photo of him on Mogel's computer after the latter left the company in 2008. Through the public-relations firm he hired at the time, Mogel released a brief statement to the Weekly denying any wrongdoing. "I want everyone to know the allegations in this lawsuit are outrageous and untrue," he said. "However, legal prudence dictates that I not discuss the case in the press because of the litigation. The truth will come out."
Mogel didn't testify during Fitzgibbons' recent trial, but Anderson did, repeating his claim that Mogel had set up Fitzgibbons. IHHI attorney David Robinson tried to poke holes in Anderson's story by pointing out that when Anderson gave his first deposition about Mogel's remarks about how powerful he was, he claimed Mogel had uttered them the day he was arrested, when in fact, Mogel was in Florida that day. But Anderson stuck to his tale, insisting that while he'd confused the dates in his mind, the conversation did happen. Clearly, the jury agreed.
Although grateful the case is finally over, Fitzgibbons says he hopes its not too late to rebuild his career. "This destroyed my hospital practice," he says. "It's gone. I'm radioactive; people are afraid to be around me." And he still hasn't gotten over the trauma of being set up and having his daughter nearly killed. "If some of this stuff had shaken out differently, I could have gone to jail, and my daughter could have died," he said. "These bastards were plotting my professional murder, and they almost got away with it."