No one knew what hap­pened to the good doc­tor’s first wife

The Citizen-Record (Cumberland) - - CRIME - MaxHaines

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.

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