No one knew what happened to the good doctor’s first wife
The good folks of Minot, N.D., thought the world of Dr. Robert Bierenbaum. Dr. Bob was forever taking off in his private plane to operate on children in remote Mexican villages. The doctor, who was a licensed pilot, never charged for his services. A cosmetic surgeon, he specialized in reconstructive surgery on children.
Dr. Bob and his wife, also a doctor, were well respected in the community. What no one knew was that the good doctor had a past — a past that went back 15 years to another time and another place.
It happened on July 7, 1985, in New York City. Bierenbaum, then a medical resident, was married to Gail Katz. The marriage of Gail and the good-looking resident was made in heaven. There he was, a doctor who spoke five languages, drove a snappy foreign car and played the classical guitar. Why, he even flew an airplane. Gail, who often suffered from bouts of depression, was one lucky girl. That is, until that fateful day in July.
Bob phoned Gail’s mother and told her that he and Gail had had a fight earlier that day. Gail had stormed out and he hadn’t heard from her since. Although the call was disturbing, it wasn’t the first time the Katz family had been informed of trouble in the Bierenbaum marriage. A day passed. Two days. No one heard from Gail.
The marriage had been on the rocks for months. Gail had confided to her sister that Bob had choked her and had once choked her cat before plunging it into a toilet in an attempt to drown the animal.
Family members were well aware that Dr. Bob had a violent temper and had abused his wife on numerous occasions. Gail had reacted by taking on lovers. Two men, a psychologist and a banker, had affairs with the troubled woman. She also sought professional help from a psychiatrist, Michael Stone, whom she met with on a weekly basis. Yes, the Bierenbaum marriage was anything but a happy one.
Now Gail was missing. Her family distributed flyers. Police investigated, but not one trace of the woman was uncovered. Because of the turbulent marital history revealed to police by Gail’s family, it was suspected that Dr. Bob had killed his wife, but there was no proof of murder, and most troubling, no body.
Dr. Bob remarried and moved to Los Vegas, and later to Minot, N.D. In both communities, he and his gynecologist wife were highly regarded. As the years passed, the Katz family, convinced that Gail had been murdered, attempted to keep the case alive.
In May 1989, four years after Gail’s disappearance, a torso washed up on a Staten Island Beach. Medical examination determined that at last Gail Bierenbaum had been found. As if waiting for her daughter to return, Gail’s mother, Sylvia Katz, died a few months later. Her father, Manny, died five years after the body was recovered.
In 1997, the case of Gail Bierenbaum resurfaced when many police forces began reviewing what has become known as “cold cases.” It was decided to exhume what was thought to be Gail’s body. DNA testing proved that a mistake had been made. The headless body had not been Gail’s.
Detectives delved into the old reports and studied the various statements made at the time of the disappearance. One such statement indicated that Dr. Bob had attended a nephew’s birthday party on the evening of the day Gail went missing. At that time, he had told police he had left for the party at 5:30 p.m. His father stated he had arrived at the party at 6:30 p.m.
Detectives discovered that on the day of Gail’s disappearance Bob had rented a Cessna 172 from the Essex County Airport in Caldwell, N.J., and had taken it on a 1.9-hour flight. At no time during all the questioning and statement taking did the sophisticated doctor ever mention he had rented a plane that day. In addition, authorities learned from airport records that Bierenbaum had taken off at 4:30 p.m. and had returned at 6:25 p.m. on that fateful Sunday in July. Police now firmly believed that Bierenbaum had killed his wife and disposed of her body from the plane somewhere between Montauk Point, N.Y. and Cape May, N.J.
Psychiatrist Michael Stone told police of consultations that Bob and Gail had had with him during their marriage. Although the visits weren’t numerous, the psychiatrist told Gail that her husband would kill her if she didn’t leave him. He also said that Bierenbaum was psychopathic and a chronic liar. So concerned was the psychiatrist that he typed out a letter, which Gail refused to sign. It read:
“I have been advised by Dr. Stone that for reasons of my own safety I should at this time live apart from my husband... If I do not heed this advice, I must accept the consequences, including the possibility of personal injury, or death, at the hands of my husband, and absolve Dr. Stone of responsibility for any such eventuality.”
The circumstantial evidence indicat- ing guilt was mounting. Gail’s relatives revealed that she had been seeking a divorce and had threatened Dr. Bob with going public with his psychological problems if he didn’t meet the terms of the divorce.
At last, 15 years after Gail Bierenbaum disappeared off the face of the earth, her husband was taken into custody and charged with her murder. In August 2000, Dr. Bierenbaum stood trial for the murder of his wife. He pleaded not guilty.
The prosecution presented an array of circumstantial evidence. First and foremost there was the dysfunctional marriage. Add to that Dr. Bob’s violent temper and the testimony of the psychiatrist who had actually predicted years earlier that the doctor would kill his wife. Then there was the airplane ride, which the accused hadn’t mentioned to anyone, taken at the crucial time when he would have had the opportunity to dispose of his wife’s body. The prosecution also pointed out the many conflicting stories told by Bierenbaum concerning the day of the disappearance.
The New York jury returned a verdict of guilty. In November, at a sentencing hearing, New York State Supreme Court Justice Leslie Snyder noted that with Dr. Bierenbaum’s training as a surgeon “he could have dismembered his wife in 10 minutes and with his background as a pilot he used his superior advantages and background, but he didn’t use it to help society or do the right thing. He used it to be a successful murderer.”
Justice Snyder went on to agree with the jury’s guilty verdict: “There is evidence that I know and that the defendant knows is absolutely overwhelmingly clear that this defendant killed his wife. The defendant disposed of Gail like she was a piece of meat; he cut it, sawed it, packaged it and discarded it.”
Dr. Robert Bierenbaum was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment with the proviso that he serve every minute of the sentence.
Detectives discovered that on the day of Gail’s disappearance Bob had rented a Cessna 172 from the Essex County Airport in Caldwell, N.J.